There is so much going on in this movie, so many conflicting sensations. It’s like standing in the surf up to your waist in the middle of August – you have the light and heat of the sun beating down on you, the chilly water sluicing around your body as the waves rise and fall, the soft sand between your toes, and the knowledge that most shark attacks occur near shore in two to three feet of water.
Part of the fun of this movie is having not one, but two, serial killers to play with, er, worry about. The first one we’re supposed to worry about, Buffalo Bill (played by the always delightful, and always surprising, Ted Levine). Bill is running around killing and then skinning women (thank God it’s not the other way around), and making the FBI crazy. And the second one who is “safely” behind bars, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (played by a chillingly urbane Anthony Hopkins). Lector is a brilliant psychiatrist and a bloodthirsty cannibal.
When the calculating head of the Behavioral Science Unit, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), sends little FBI trainee, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), to go see Dr. Lecter on a fake “mission” to get his serial killer profile it made me cringe. Talk about sending a lamb to the slaughter! However, as is often the case, by the end of the movie everyone in this little threesome gets more than they bargained for.
I have to admit I felt sorry for Buffalo Bill. He was all kinds of messed up and it looked like he had experienced a bad childhood along with mental illness. He was horribly alienated from himself (suffering from gender dysphoria), and other human beings as well. His classic line, “It uses the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose” when speaking to one of his captives pretty much says it all.
The U.S. Senator’s attempt to humanize her captive daughter on TV definitely fell on deaf ears in his case. Besides, I don’t think Bill even owned a television.
On the other hand, Dr. Hannibal Lecter is a whole different kind of serial killer. Unlike Buffalo Bill, Lecter finds it easy, maybe insultingly so, to hide what he is. He’s smart, wealthy, accomplished … he could easily be living a great life, but instead he’s driven by dark desires to do unbelievable things.
At least, we hope he’s “driven” by those desires, and not the other way around. Unlike Buffalo Bill, Lecter seems more “driver” than “driven” when it comes to his murderous impulses. Then there are those creepily heightened senses he possesses – smell definitely, hearing yep, taste probably (ick). Lecter the psychopath is the kind of over-endowed human being who makes me wonder just where humanity is heading, evolutionarily speaking – smarter and kinder? Or smarter and crueler?
But let’s leave these two losers behind, and talk about Clarice Starling. Smart, driven, unbelievably tough – I want to be just like her when I grow up. It is Starling, with her “good bag and cheap shoes” who pierces through Dr. Lecter’s egotism and boredom, causing him to recognize her for that rare bird, an authentic human being. Dr. Lecter, to his credit, returns the favor and acknowledges Starling’s worth and professionalism. (Something it takes her boss, Jack Crawford, an entire movie to do, by the way.)
So it’s no surprise at the end when she could conceivably shout at Crawford (who is slowly going upstairs), and tell him Lecter is on the phone right now, but she doesn’t. You could take the cynical approach and say Lecter was playing Starling (and who would know how to better than him?), but I think at the end they were just two outsiders who’d grown to respect, and maybe just a little bit, like each other.