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"Silence of the Lambs" Addresses Social Issues Still Relevant Today

Updated on June 20, 2015
Anthony Hopkins will eat your liver with some fava beans and some nice chianti.
Anthony Hopkins will eat your liver with some fava beans and some nice chianti. | Source
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Rating: R
Studio: Orion Pictures
Running Time: 118 minutes

A great deal of time and effort has been recently put into covering the ever-changing social landscape of America through film. "Silence of the Lambs" is no different, but does so to varying degrees of success.

Based on the Thomas Harris novel, the film follows Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in her high profile investigation of "Buffalo Bill," (Ted Levine), a supposedly trans-sexual serial killer who skins his victims (mostly women) and wears them. Helping her is Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a former psychiatrist incarcerated for eating his patients.

Ted Levine's portrayal of Buffalo Bill has been met with much criticism from the LGBT community, though could've been resolved by a deeper exploration of his character.
Ted Levine's portrayal of Buffalo Bill has been met with much criticism from the LGBT community, though could've been resolved by a deeper exploration of his character. | Source

The controversy surrounding this film originated from James "Buffalo Bill" Gumb, the film's main antagonist. In an industry that still has so few transsexual and bisexual characters, it is perfectly legitimate to question Demme's antagonization of the character, though in his defense it is central to Gumb's character, as his dissatisfaction with his own identity leads to the need to change himself, though the extremes he goes to make it happen are far from just.

Jodie Foster's performance as Agent Starling are reminiscent of Ripley in "Alien", as she uses her fear of failure as a way of strengthening her resolve. Overall, her job may be on the line, as her male coworkers refuse to give her any breaks. It's a sad but true reality many women faced in the 1980s, and to some extent still do today, and the film addresses that, though it wouldn't have hurt to give Agent Starling at least one ally within the FBI.

Agent Clarice Starling inspects a moth found inside a victim's mouth.
Agent Clarice Starling inspects a moth found inside a victim's mouth. | Source

And of course you have the wonderful Hopkins performance. Do I really need to say anymore? Every expression on this man's face is calculated to lull the viewer into a false sense of security, and you always know that he could snap at any time. There is a lot to be said about a man who can make you unsettled merely by standing in the center of the room, waiting for you, essentially doing nothing and everything all at once.

The Hopkins performance is a major part of the film, for better or for worse. Hannibal Lector certainty gets a lot done within the confines of his hospital cell, but I can't help but feel this detracts from the Ted Levine performance, who is the main villain of the film. It's so different than 1986's "Manhunter," which managed to give both William Peterson and Tom Noonan complete arcs while having Lector still serve a major role.

Buffalo Bill plays creeper while Agent Starling has a loaded gun.
Buffalo Bill plays creeper while Agent Starling has a loaded gun. | Source

Perhaps that's the point. Levine's portrayal of the serial killer is supposed to be more realistic after all, and in a real investigation, not much would be known about the killer until he's actually caught. Adding to this is how removed Bill is not only from his society, but from himself, as Jonathan Demme has went on record saying that Gumb's desire to become a women was an attempt to get as " far away from himself as he possibly could be." Therefore in the context of the film, an oft-absent antagonist is appropriate.

Still, one can only wonder what Lambs would be like had Levine gotten more scenes. Though we would've gotten a far more complete character, I doubt Levine would've been able to climb out from under Anthony Hopkins's shadow.

One of Gumb's captives begs for remorse.
One of Gumb's captives begs for remorse. | Source

There is no denying the social impact of this film and its exploration of sexism in the workplace. I feel if this tale was updated to a modern setting, less of a focus would be placed on Agent Starling's challenges as a women and more of an agent forced into partnership with an absolute psychopath, and to an extent, it has, with the various sequels and the spin-off show "Hannibal."

Times might have changed, but they have not done so to the extent that issues in "Silence of the Lambs" are irrelevant. Anthony Hopkins provided a legendary performance not soon forgotten, and overall every aspect of the film except for its balancing of Buffalo Bill's appearances shines.

Commendable

3 stars for The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

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