This wouldn’t be a month of villains if I did not start with a very significant one, one that sends shivers down your spine when you’re thinking of him: of course I’m talking about Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.
In preparation of my thesis, I sat down and watched all of the films in one evening, while I was in a completely empty, sometimes creepy house. Guys: do not do this at home. Or alone, at any rate. That night was quite something. But what makes Hannibal Lecter such a creepy guy? Sure, he eats people and has the capacity to manipulate and analyse people no matter how much they hide from him. He doesn’t really have a grasp on ‘morals’ – but that’s why he’s locked up, right, and shouldn’t he be less dangerous then? If you really thought that, clearly you’ve never seen a single proper thriller in your life.
But what is striking about the villain situation in Silence of the Lambs is that Lecter is only a secondary villain; he’s actually cooperating (more or less) with the FBI, on his own terms and through his own motives of course; he only becomes an active villain after his escape. The main villain in the novel and film is Jame Gumb, and although he is quite memorable as well (“It puts its lotion on its skin!”), it’s Lecter who actually stays in our minds. And that’s probably because, well, he is creepier, but he’s also the less accessible of the two – the more mysterious one.
Because that’s where his strength really lies: his mind. It is by far the strongest, most elaborate part of him. He doesn’t mind being alone or in pain, and that’s why he has the upper hand in every single conversation. Officer Starling is unable to get any information from him if he doesn’t want to share; what he likes, and what he has, is power. It is up to him whether or not he talks to her, whether or not he helps her, and because he refuses to give an answer if she does not answer one of his excruciatingly personal questions, he becomes the one investigating her. Or anyone for that matter; he decides when a conversation is over, what topic they talk about and when, and if he is pressured for an answer, he simply zones out; he’s constantly mocking people. And he is perfectly fine with everything as long as he keeps his dignity; ironically enough for someone who casually eats his conversation partners, manners are incredibly important to him. That is why, when a fellow inmate insults Starling with his inappropriate behaviour, he takes revenge by talking him into committing suicide. Huh, that’s quite a creepy skill to have, right?
Another striking, chilling thing is his standpoint on evil, which classifies him as what I earlier [link] termed ‘the core villain’ because frankly, he’s a smart guy, he knows that morals exist, but he chooses to ignore them, and states:
Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviorism, Officer Starling. You’ve got everybody in moral dignity pants- nothing is ever anybody’s fault. Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand to say I’m evil? Am I evil, Officer Starling?
(Harris, Silence of the Lambs, p. 20)
It’s a suggestion that is supposed to make us stop, make us consider, make us think: he suggests that evil is inherent to his character – to his character, or to all of us? Are we all, deep down, evil creatures, or are some people evil and some are not? Or is he wrong, and there are external circumstances to be considered? For all we know, it could be anything, because we don’t know enough about his background to know if something happened to him. And even though he seemingly rejects morals, the fact that he chooses to ignore them presupposes some kind of conscious moral choice on his part anyway.
For putting that character to a screen, of course, Anthony Hopkins was the perfect choice. (And not only Anthony Hopkins; Mads Mikkelsen in the current TV series Hannibal portrays him extremely well, too, but I suppose that for many, Anthony Hopkins’s performance will be the first to come to mind.) It is probably mostly his piercing eyes that make him such a perfect match, and the film makes full use of that. Instead of simply reading about him being an incredibly dominant, creepy persona, we see it, and we get the feeling that he uses his power on us as well – mainly through camera shots that put the eyes in the very centre of the frame, staring right at, right into us. His voice is even and his tone hardly ever changes. His behaviour is completely static. Every word is enunciated. He is just, in every aspect of the word, a ‘villain’, and one that you wouldn’t want to meet anywhere at night, especially not in your kitchen.
* This post is part of the project ‘Imperial March’. You can read more about the project and its genesis here. This post is also in parts a summarised/simplified version of my ‘Hannibal Lecter’ chapter in my academic work ‘Reading Over to the Dark Side: The Complexity of the Male Villain in Film and Literature’, which you can find here.