Hi! We’re Mark and Nitish, and we (like most of you we hope) are practicing social distancing to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. We recognize that this is a super stressful time for a lot of people, and that many of you are being harmed by the virus in one way or another. So, we thought we’d do something that would hopefully lighten the mood. We are going to be watching and reviewing movies available on streaming platforms. Our column will be published every Wednesday and Friday, and we plan on reviewing one movie a day. That makes things easier for us procrastinators! We hope that you can watch along, send us your thoughts, and recommend movies that you like or want us to watch. Best of luck to all of you in these trying times!
“The Silence of the Lambs” (Released in 1991; watched by us on Sept. 18, 2020)
A crime horror by Jonathan Demme. We watched it on Netflix!
Um… ok. I can confirm, dear reader, that this is a movie. And the only thing scarier, in my opinion, than watching “The Silence of the Lambs” is the prospect of talking about it.
Adapted from a novel of the same name, “The Silence of the Lambs” follows FBI trainee, Clarice Starling, who becomes involved in the pursuit of Buffalo Bill, a serial killer notorious for skinning his female victims. In order to gain a lead, she is instructed to consult the infamous Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a former psychiatrist turned cannibal. Throughout the course of the story, as the stakes of the mission rise, she is forced to dive deeper into the mind of the killer, but this allows the killer to dive deeper into hers.
I was dreading this movie for a good while. This is the only film that I know has legitimately haunted my own tough-as-nails father. To this day, he refuses to put on lotion or sunscreen precisely because of this movie, and as an enthusiast of both lotion and sunscreen — healthy skin can go a long way, dear reader — I was quite intimidated.
Indeed, “The Silence of the Lambs” lives up to its reputation: This is an unsettling piece of horror. As I write this review, there is this uncomfortable sensation on the surface of my skin, crawling up my legs and arms like a spider and I am inclined to watch my back every now and then lest the feeling get worse. Furthermore, if I ever see an old man struggling to move a sofa into his truck, I am definitely going to just leave him there, so we can also say this movie has made me a worse person. There is something about the dialogue and the many stellar performances, especially Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, that make these murderers feel oddly transcendent and super-human, making an otherwise grounded crime thriller become borderline Lovecraftian. Comparatively, I, the normal audience member, feel so much smaller and helpless in the chaotic and uncaring outside world. This appears to be the goal behind horror as a genre, and I must say the film succeeds in this regard. So screw you Jonathan Demme and crew, you got another York.
Yet, there were other things about “The Silence of the Lambs” that made me feel uncomfortable for… other reasons.
Let us talk briefly about Buffalo Bill. And here, I offer the reader some spoiler warnings. The big reveal behind the serial killer is that, though he is not trans, he does wish to become a woman, and he does so by skinning female victims in an attempt to wear some sort of “woman suit.” He also seems to act feminine — especially when he dons the suit, make-up and wig, and when he wears women’s clothes — and his transformation (I use this word because the movie compares his “routine” to a butterfly breaking out of its cocoon) is very sexual in nature. Um… I believe the reader can sense my discomfort with this portrayal from a modern lens. That is not to say “The Silence of the Lambs” is entirely tactless. The screenplay does specify that Buffalo Bill is not representative of the trans community (I also hear that the original novel got a lot more reckless with this portrayal). Though, I fear that the damage may have been done regardless, I can see transphobic viewers leaving the experience having their incorrect beliefs about this demographic reinforced, and I am not comfortable with that.
Am I overthinking things, dear reader? Am I being just a bit too Gen Z? I must specify that I am very much not an expert on this topic, and though I did my best to do some research before this review, my perspective is not the definitive opinion about trans representation. (There are also questions I have about mental health representation, and the horror genre’s tendency to brutalize women, that I do not have the page space to discuss.) For now, I encourage the reader to form their own opinions.
What I can say, however, with quite a lot of confidence is that a movie like this definitely would not fly in 2020. And honestly, I do not think we need more than one “The Silence of the Lambs.” I say this selfishly too, I admit, because this movie was very disturbing. I have been changed forever, and I never want to see or talk about this movie again. Considering what this movie seems to be going for, that is at least some type of endorsement, so congratulations?
“Silence of the Lambs” is dated for a few reasons. Mark covered the fact that this movie has uncomfortably dated portrayals, but I want to focus on one that’s less important but is perhaps the hottest take that I have had in this movie column, and I’ve had a lot of hot takes. Anthony Hopkins isn’t the best Hannibal Lecter. Mads Mikkelsen, from the TV show “Hannibal,” takes that honor. And it’s not particularly close either. Also, “Hannibal” is a much better work of art in general. So again, reader, you have to deal with one of my non-reviews where I talk about something totally unrelated to the movie at hand. But I think it’ll be worth it!
So, I wanna talk about the pros of this movie first. Anthony Hopkins is truly one of cinema’s best villains as the chilling, mendacious, manipulative and just downright terrifying Hannibal Lecter. Hopkins croons in a velvety voice as Lecter, oozing sophistication. It’s impossible for the viewer not to be a little sympathetic, a little impressed with the intelligence worn on his sleeve. And then Lecter says something a little crude and vulgar, or perhaps something extremely crude and vulgar, and the viewer is suddenly revolted, not just at the character on the screen, but at themselves for getting drawn in by his charms. It’s masterful. This makes the movie genuinely scary. There’s an insidiousness to Lecter’s depravity. He has an empathy for Clarisse that’s honestly more terrifying than anything else he does: His capacity to torment and torture arises from his keen understanding of the ways to hurt another person. I don’t think I’ve ever been more creeped out by a villain in a movie, more deeply unsettled.
But! You know whose Hannibal Lecter is even better? Mads Mikkelsen’s! Mikkelsen’s Lecter is even more charming, even more sophisticated. While Hopkins’ Lecter seems capable of empathy, Mikkelsen’s seems capable of genuine love. Hopkins is, of course, one of the finest actors on the planet, and his Lecter is clear evidence. But Mikkelsen has more time to work with the character, and although he’s probably not a better actor overall, Mikkelsen is able to inject his portrayal of the character with dozens of tiny tics and nuances that end up elevating his performance to an unparalleled height. I genuinely haven’t seen a better non-Daniel Day-Lewis performance (if you think any performance, ever, is better than Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview, I will fight you).
So there are other pros to this movie too, right? Like its winding twists and turns which consistently manage to shock the viewer? But yet again, “Hannibal” the TV show manages to do that and more. The season two finale of “Hannibal” is perhaps the single most shocking episode of TV I’ve ever seen, and I think it rivals the “Breaking Bad” episode “Ozymandias” as one of the best ever episodes of TV. Jodie Foster’s excellent performance might be able to separate “Silence of the Lambs” from the pack? But no. The supporting cast of “Hannibal” is littered with outstanding performances, from Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham to Caroline Dhavernas’ Alana Bloom to Laurence Fishburne’s Jack Crawford. Fishburne blows Scott Glenn’s Jack Crawford out of the water, it’s not even close, folks.
And lastly, as Mark explains, “Silence of the Lambs” is pretty dated in some of its portrayals. With “Hannibal” the TV show, no such issues! Indeed, NBC’s drama (I honestly have no idea how this thing was on a network show, it’s some of the bloodiest TV I’ve ever watched) has been lauded for the steps it took to ensure a diverse cast and crew.
So, yeah, “Silence of the Lambs” is a classic horror movie, I guess. It’s pretty good. But! “Hannibal,” the TV show, is way better! You should definitely watch that! So sorry for this half-assed review, whole-assed promotion of a TV show that I like, but you get what you pay for. (Mark and I don’t get paid.) So have fun with a great movie and an all-time great TV show!
Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu and Nitish Vaidyanathan at nitishv ‘at’ stanford.edu.