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The 36 Dramatic Situations: Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Pursuit

Silence Of The Lambs Lecter
By  · Published on August 30th, 2010

This article is part of our 36 Dramatic Situations series.

For 36 days straight, we’ll be exploring the famous 36 Dramatic Situations by examining a film that exemplifies each one. From family killing family to prisoners in need of asylum, we brush off the 19th-century list in order to remember that it’s still incredibly relevant today.

Whether you’re seeking a degree in Literature, love movies, or just love seeing things explode, our feature should have something for everyone. If it doesn’t, please don’t make us put the lotion on our skin.

Part 21 of the 36-part series takes a look at “Pursuit” with suspense icon Silence of the Lambs.

The Synopsis

Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is tapped to meet with famed cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in order to gain his assistance in tracking down the serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) – a man who abducts women and then skins them alive.

The Situation

It doesn’t get much more straightforward than “Pursuit.” It requires a Punishment and a Fugitive, and frankly, it usually focuses solely on a hero who is on the lam from some sort of injustice. However, Silence of the Lambs offers a strange insight into the situation by focusing on the pursuing force while also giving the audience a glimpse into the world of the man being hunted. The CIA and death penalty are the Punishment. Buffalo Bill is the Fugitive, and while he’s not our hero, we get eerily close to him.

There are admittedly better choices for this situation. The bonus films listed at the end fit better into the mold of seeing a hero on the lam, but this film offers a twist on that theme, and that’s absolutely worth exploring.

The Film

What Jonathan Demme has done with the characters of Thomas Harris is a revelation in the blending of horror and psychological police procedural. Certain scenes are quietly unnerving while others are full-blown, heart attack-inducing horror tropes delivered through the callous lenses of night vision goggles. By dropping us so intimately into the lion’s den – by bringing us that close to the man we are seeking alongside Starling – we are given a demonic insight into a mad man driven to doling out pain and to dancing around with his manhood tucked into his thighs.

As for the pursuit, Silence of the Lambs is unconventional to say the least. I’m not an expert on CIA procedure, but there’s something not at all by the book about the way Starling goes about finding Buffalo Bill. Much of it relies on her own hard work, instinct, and an innate sense of connection to the violence. It’s not uncommon to see a police official tracking down a wrongdoer – we see it every week on the networks – but there’s something fresh and unusual about Starling. She’s different, and it makes her a fascinating character to follow as she pursues an end to the nightmare.

That end is delivered through her relationship with Lecter. It’s interesting to think about in the context of the dramatic situation because the modern idea of pursuit (including the relationship-building that goes on here) is passive compared to what the word Pursuit evokes. The word conjures up an image of a man or woman sweating, on the run, and a pack of hounds chasing him or her. That action is replaced by what ends up being the key to finding Buffalo Bill. Starling pursues him by staying put. By being patient. By using her mind instead of her feet.

Meanwhile, the audience is treated to the maddening frustration of seeing Buffalo Bill continue to abduct and kill while our hero is standing perfectly still in front of another killer’s cell. Pursuit by conversation doesn’t seem cinematic in any way, but it pays dividends when it comes to suspense, paying off brilliantly here. It’s unusual, but that’s what makes it work so frighteningly well.

Bonus Examples: Robin Hood; The Fugitive; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Enemy of the State

Check out our entire series of 36 Dramatic Situations, 36 Movies.

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