by Jamie Brown
Alongside the all-conquering Stranger Things, Netflix’s other recently-released autumn banker is the David Fincher-helmed Mindhunter, a 1970s period ten-parter that covers the genesis of criminal profiling techniques developed by the FBI. The series is based on the 1995 non-fiction book of the same name and the book’s co-author, former bureau agent John Douglas, one of the earliest profilers, is the inspiration for the show’s protagonist, Holden Ford. Douglas’s headline research technique was to conduct one-on-one interviews with some of America’s most notorious violent offenders and serial killers in an effort to learn their thought processes.
Douglas was first fictionalised as early as 1981, when his work was still relatively new, as the character of Jack Crawford in Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon. Dennis Farina played Crawford in the original film adaptation, 1986’s Manhunter, and was followed in the role by Scott Glenn when Harris’s follow-up, The Silence of the Lambs, was brought to the screen by the late Jonathan Demme in 1991. The rest, as they say…
The most memorable scenes in The Silence of the Lambs are those that feature only its two lead characters, as trainee FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) meets with convicted psychopath Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to try and coax wisdom from his brilliant criminal mind that will help her to catch a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. The film and its source novel owe this idea of using one murderer to help catch another to the work of Douglas. Twenty-six years on, the stand-out moments in Mindhunter, a show directly dramatising Douglas’s work, are the compelling extended set pieces featuring agent-on-killer (or should that be killer-on-agent?) interviews – an idea clearly stolen from The Silence of the Lambs. Art and life, reliable as ever, doing their thing.
The crazy success of The Silence of the Lambs can’t be overstated. After taking over fourteen times its budget at the box office, it became only the third movie ever to sweep the ‘big five’ at the Oscars. It remains the only film classed as horror to win Best Picture. I have to admit to some bias at this point, having enjoyed the film on the small screen numerous times, but nothing prepared me for my first viewing in a cinema. The film appeared to be ten times better than I remembered, and I loved it to begin with. Then again, this was not your garden variety screening. To launch this new 4K restoration of the film – the centrepiece of their “Thriller” season – the BFI secured an appearance from Jodie Foster herself. An elusive star for many years, Foster has become more visible again in recent times, nevertheless this is about as hot as cinema tickets get; the intensity of the film increased by the presence lurking benevolently in the dark.
I’m not clear about how or when Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally made the decision to strip down the male characters from Harris’s novel to place further emphasis on Starling, but it ought to go down as one of the most inspired choices in the history of adapting books for the screen. The Silence of the Lambs stood out immediately (and still does) as a feminist movie in a subgenre where that is practically unheard of. A female hero pursuing a killer of women was already a strong statement and reversal of the norm, but the film picks up this ball and runs with it. Demme lets us know his intentions in the opening scene as Starling, called in from physical training to meet with her boss, squeezes her petite frame into a lift occupied by about a dozen hulking males. Numerous other brilliant frames depicting a woman’s everyday lot follow. When Starling meets Lecter for the first time in an underground dungeon, she is a free woman amongst caged men, yet Demme grimly shows her to be staggeringly unsafe from violation. As Amy Taubin noted in her 1991 review for Sight & Sound: “for women I know, most of whom have seen it more than once, the film is as exhilarating as it is harrowing”.
It is doubtful anyone will say the same about Mindhunter, but the choice of factually-based events and period setting meant the show’s creators had rather burned their bridges as far as the troublesome dynamic of men-as-women’s-rescuers goes. Mindhunter compensates by handing most of the wisdom to the show’s two leading female characters. The opening season also uses the opportunity of a male-dominated story to provide a fairly robust take on toxic masculinity – a theme audiences will recognise as common in Fincher’s work.
Watching The Silence of the Lambs today, it becomes clear how much it is Starling’s – and Foster’s – film, and it is therefore easy to forget how the press hysteria of 1991 had told us it was all about Lecter, and Hopkins. If I were forced to identify a weakness in the film, it would probably be Lecter’s outrageously theatrical escape from custody, which, while brilliantly staged and wonderfully in keeping with Lecter’s character, keeps Starling off screen for too long. Lecter drew tabloid attention in 1991 as a terrifying, flesh-eating bogeyman, but I have to say I have never found the character scary. Lecter’s edge comes from his audacious ambiguity; a cannibalistic killer who is charming, cerebral, artistic, brilliant with language and, on the whole, an ally in the hunt for Buffalo Bill. Demme toys with the audience, daring you to root for him, and Hopkins revels in this, delivering the part with an unsettling flamboyance. Lecter’s victims in the film are all dislikeable; his prison neighbour Miggs – punished for wronging Starling – then various dumb authority figures or, as the contemporary review in The Guardian called them, “weasel-faced non-entities”. Such a face is missed a little less when it is chewed off.
Those famous exchanges between Starling and Lecter are the scenes most noticeably given new life by the big screen. Demme’s technique of mostly shooting the two actors in separate close-ups, their lines delivered straight into the camera but not quite straight to the audience, then cutting it into psychological ping-pong, creates unbearably intense theatre that hasn’t aged a day. Again, you can see the influence on Mindhunter in its use of shot reverse shot for the mind games scenes, though these are, appropriately, less theatrical since the killers in the series – the real ones from John Douglas’s book – aren’t even renamed. These men need to be – and are – far scarier than the fictional Lecter. The intensity in Mindhunter is mostly generated by there being, inexplicably, no physical barrier between agent and killer. Unlike Lecter, troublingly charismatic but kept distant from reality by Demme’s use of tropes from gothic fiction/theatre, the real-world monsters of Mindhunter are not people you would consider trusting for a second, unless perhaps you are a young agent blinded by egotism and masculinity issues.
As the credits roll following The Silence of the Lambs’ now-legendary nerve-obliterating conclusion, the BFI audience prepares itself. Jodie Foster walks out, typically unflashy, to rapturous, extended applause. Foster is relaxed and talkative in her on-stage interview with Edith Bowman, joking that she never expected her success with the film to go unrepeated. Foster talks about how her directing work was the realisation of a childhood ambition, and reveals a preference these days for the long-form storytelling of TV. Along with telling us that she’s still very choosy about scripts and loves travelling, these are statements that suggest her future film work, especially as an actor, might be less than prolific. The highlight of the interview is when Foster answers a question that is clearly meant to elicit a response to the entertainment industry’s recent sexual assault/harassment scandals. Asked whether she was worried about a regression in attitudes, she answers with an unequivocal “no”. The number of people now aware of such issues, of what constitutes appropriate behaviour, and who are empowered to speak out and act, Foster explains, is far greater today than, say, in her mother’s generation, and increasing all the time.
Widening the scope of the argument, Foster describes those making progress as being in conflict with others left behind, leaving us in “a painful transitional period”. Whether you have been recently filling your head with serial killers, or merely with more everyday horrors, it’s a note of reassuring wisdom on which to end the evening.