Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Silence of the Lambs -- civility, coveting and change

Director: Jonathan Demme, 1991. (R)  

With Ted Tally’s screenplay of Thomas Harris’ book, Jonathan Demme (The Manchurian Candidate)did what only two other directors had done before, namely create a film that scooped all 5 major Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins, Fracture) and Best Actress (Jodie Foster). And this psychological thriller is part chiller, part horror. Certainly, it pits two memorable characters against one another in search of a killer, and rivets the tension without excessive gore. Oh there is blood and some disturbing images, but the horror is mostly left to the imagination, a sign of a great film.

With “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine) kidnapping, murdering and skinning young women, senior FBI Agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) realizes he needs help in getting inside the mind of this psychopath. He sends FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Foster) to visit the brilliant Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins). But Lecter is himself a psychopathic killer and a cannibal to boot. Clarice does not know what she is getting into as she visits him in the asylum for the criminally insane where he is imprisoned.

Hopkins is only on screen for about 16 minutes, the shortest Best Actor performance ever. But this screen time is dominated by three incredibly tense interactions with Jodie Foster and a gory escape from an escape-proof cage. Just in these one-on-one interviews, Hopkins and Foster demonstrate the highest quality of acting.

The first two interactions occur in the asylum. Clarice thinks she is interrogating Lecter, but he is subtly getting inside her mind, turning the tables on her. Separated by a glass wall rather than cell bars, Clarice and Lecter can stand opposite one another and appear to be able to reach out and touch one another. Demme uses this to create a sense of creepy intimacy between the two.

When Lecter tells Clarice, “If I help you, Clarice it till be turns with us, too. Quid pro quo. I tell you things, you tell me things. Not about this case, though. About yourself. Quid pro quo. Yes or no?” She is too rash and young to say no, not realizing he will force her to confront her greatest fear. Lecter has the intellectual ability of a trained psychologist to get to the root of a person. And he immediately penetrates her defenses, taking her back to an incident in her youth, from which the film gets its names, when a barn-full of lambs is being slaughtered. “You still wake up sometimes, don’t you? You wake up in the dark and hear the screaming of the lambs?” Clarice is running from this picture, trying in her life and work to silence the screaming, to hear instead the silence of the lambs.

If the first interaction between the two sets the tension, it is the last interaction that brings this to a climax. Here, several themes emerge from this single conversation. Lecter has been brought to Baltimore, to come face to face with a US Senator whose daughter is the current kidnap victim. Transported in a strait jacket with a head mask to prevent him using even his teeth on the guards, Lecter appears safe and harmless. Further, he is placed in a cage in the middle of a ballroom, actively guarded by two armed policeman in a multi-story building evacuated by all but the police.

When Clarice comes to talk to him, appealing to his intellect for help in solving this crime spree, Lecter tells her, “First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature?”

What is the nature of man? That is the first question we face here. The chillingly erudite cannibal told her earlier what his nature is: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” This is a great quote and highlights the evil of this man, a character who appears in many of the top 5 lists of best villains from the movies. It also highlights the thin veneer of civilization that masks the depravity and self-centeredness of us all. We all seek to look nice and good to those around us, but within our civility is actually replaced by a sinfulness that we cannot overcome on our own. The Bible makes it clear, “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10); “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23). From birth “the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jer:17:9) and we do our best to hide it. Some allow the truth to come out, like Dr. Lecter, but the darkness is present in all, until we are redeemed by Jesus (Rom. 3:24).

Lecter goes on, almost instructing Clarice as a professor would: “What does he do, this man you seek?” She thinks the answer is obvious: “He kills women.” But that is too plain. “No. That is incidental. What is the principal thing he does? What needs does he serve by killing? He covets. That is his nature.” Here is the second theme.

Coveting is one of the sins addressed in the ten commandments: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Ex. 20:17). It is the desire to have what is someone else’s. It evidences a dissatisfaction with one’s own estate, and seeks to rectify this by taking from someone else regardless of the pain it will bring. Covetousness stems from the inner nature of a person. We cannot excise coveting until we eradicate our sinful self, and that only through Christ.

Finally, Lecter gets to the point. “Look for severe childhood disturbances associated with violence. Our Billy wasn’t born a criminal, Clarice. He was made one through years of systematic abuse. Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual.” Billy wants to change himself and he is doing this through his violence against women.

Change also picks up on a sub-theme of the film: the death’s head moth. The movie poster depicts Clarice Starling with her mouth covered by this moth, and several corpses are found with the moth’s cocoon in their mouths. These cocoons, or pupae, metamorphosize into the moths as part of their lifecycle. They effectively change from an ugly larva into a beautiful creature.

Change is part of life. But the biggest and best change of all is in our nature. The original nature of mankind follows man’s original sin: we have an adamic nature. But Jesus Christ laid down his life that we might be changed and given a new nature (Gal. 6:15). When we trust him, our lives are renewed and we are made into new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). This change is far greater than the moth emerging from the cocoon, for that creature has not had an innate change, just an external bodily one. The change in the Christian is one of inner nature, of the very soul.

After the interaction between Clarice and Lecter, Clarice is led away without a firm answer. Lecter has planted the seed, knowing that she has the intelligence to solve the clues herself. Meanwhile, he is able to escape from the cage leaving a bloody exhibit that once more points to his evil nature, despite his urbane manner. Clarice, on the other hand figures out the clues and is sent on her own to interview family members of the victims. The climax has her unwittingly enter Buffalo Bill’s house, only to become the hunted. The scene where he is following her in the dark through his house of horrors will produce goose-bumps of fear in even the most horror-hardened viewer.

The Silence of the Lambs stands up there with other great Oscar winners as a film that not only delivers a powerful story but also engages the mind with philosophical themes. It highlights our nature and our need. When considered biblically, it points us unerringly to Jesus Christ, himself called a lamb. Interestingly, this Lamb of God was silent before his inquisitor (Isa. 53:7; Matt. 26:63). His was truly, the silence of the Lamb!

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

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