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Dir: Jonathan Demme/ Writing credits: Thomas Harris (novel)/ Ted Tally/ USA/ 1991
Silence of the Lambs Silence of the Lambs 

The Silence of the Lambs has been called both brilliant and reprehensible. A careful look at the film's structure reveals that this in fact is a finely-crafted and often fascinating script, but not a great one.

Self-Revelation: Starting at the endpoint of a good script, the hero's self-revelation, we see that Clarisse achieves success but has no insight about herself. The delving that Lecter has forced her to do has no payoff. Has she stopped hearing the screaming of the lambs? Has she seen the ways in which she too is a hunter? Not in this film. Obviously her lack of a self-revelation is partly due to this film being the second in a trilogy. Clarisse's real insights must come, if at all, in the final story when she faces her greatest challenge in Lecter. But this flaw prevents The Silence of the Lambs from reaching its true potential.

Need: The need, the wellspring of any film, is established in a unique way when Lecter "analyses" Clarisse in their first meeting. He calls her ambitious and petty, one generation removed from white trash. Daughter of a slain, small-town cop, Clarisse is indeed out to prove her worth and rise above her roots. But as the model FBI trainee, she has taken the "good girl" route. She is superficial, with no sense of the limitations in herself or the "lawful" way of life.

Desire: Clarisse's desire is also set up early on. She is assigned to find out about serial killers from ex-psychiatrist and serial killer, Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter. She soon realizes her true mission is to try to find the identity of serial killer "Buffalo Bill," who skins his female victims.

This desire dictates that the film will be a detective story, and probably a thriller. What sets this film apart is that the writers have tied the thriller form - in which the detective is a woman in danger - with a main character who is determined to prove herself in the ultimate male world of the FBI. In short, the structure itself expresses both the successes and failures of a woman's liberation in a deadly world.

Opposition: The opposition in this script is extremely tricky, and would defeat most writers. The main outside opponent is Buffalo Bill. But Clarisse will only come into contact with him at the very end. The deeper opponent, Lecter, is in jail, so his opposition to Clarisse is somewhat limited as well.

One of the keys to the success of this film is that the writers have grafted a mythical structure onto the thriller form. In her journey to uncover and catch Buffalo Bill, Clarisse has, as her guide, the wise man from hell, the dark Yoda, the rotted Raskolnikov. Lecter is an opponent, but he is also her ally. As any great opponent does, Lecter attacks Clarisse's weakness with the precision of a brain surgeon. More than make her win, Lecter forces her to grow.

The relationship of Clarisse and Lecter also points up a grave weakness in the film. Lecter is the mastermind criminal, the great-souled man who, tragically, has turned to murder to exercise his power. In return for his criminal insights, he requires that Clarisse let him feed on her soul by exploring her ghost.

This is a brilliant step, but to really pay off, it requires a hero worthy of Lecter. Clarisse's self-exploration must be worthy of Lecter's fascination. True, Clarisse recalls her efforts to save the lamb, and she sees the connection between that event and her current efforts to save the women not much younger than herself. True, Clarisse is inherently talented at investigation and is a quick learner. But none of this potential comes close to justifying Lecter's obsession with her.

Plan: As in any detective-thriller, the plan involves tracking physical evidence to find the killer. Again this film sets itself apart by the unique details, especially the use of the moth cocoon and the sewing. The film also goes too far on occasion, showing Clarisse making jumps of logic that aren't supported by the evidence or her own ability.

Battle: The battle, the final conflict, pits Clarisse against Buffalo Bill. While this completes Clarisse's desire line, it doesn't give us the true battle, which must be between Clarisse and Lecter. That of course must wait for part three of the trilogy. But that means that this battle is not completely satisfying (and Clarisse's going into the basement to catch the criminal is the height of stupidity).

Self-Revelation: A deeper problem with the final battle is that it makes a self-revelation for Clarisse impossible. Buffalo Bill is a man who ironically kills women in order to "become" a woman. Shooting him can give Clarisse no insight into herself. Lecter is the real hunter, and only by confronting him can Clarisse finish the self-exploration that Lecter made her start. Clarisse must see the Lecter in herself. But that too must wait for the next film.

The Silence of the Lambs is a textbook example of how to weave a story from characters who are variations on a theme. But it also shows us how a structure that limits the opposition and the self-revelation of the hero can prevent a script from achieving true greatness.


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Silence Of The Lambs [1991]

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