Evil Eyes: Breaking the Fourth Wall in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
2 October 2011
Jonathan Demme’s 1991 thriller The Silence of the Lambs swept all major Academy Awards categories, only the third film to accomplish such a feat (the first was It Happened One Night in 1934 and the second One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975). It was the first film from the thriller genre to make such a statement, as this particular genre is often overlooked by the drama-drive Academy. Yet, The Silence of the Lambs is not your average thriller. Demme’s psychological masterpiece methodically heightens the audience’s fear by shattering the fourth wall—a theatrical term for the imaginary barrier between the audience and the action in a play, film, etc—and literally puts the audience face to face with the characters, specifically two terrifying psychopaths.
The Silence of the Lambs follows FBI student Clarice Starling (Jodi Foster), recruited in the investigation of active serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). Hoping to obtain information about Buffalo Bill’s identity, Starling travels to meet Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Lecter, who is in a maximum security asylum for murdering and eating his own victims, is brilliant, highly resourceful, and extremely dangerous. Yet, Lecter is unexpectedly refreshed by Starling’s frankness and authenticity. Although he plays mind games with her, he reveals clues to Starling, leading her to Buffalo Bill’s identity. Lecter manages to escape custody just as Starling closes in on Buffalo Bill. By the film’s conclusion, Starling comes face to face with the serial killer she’s hunted and Lecter remains free.
One of the most remarkable things about The Silence of the Lambs is Demme’s camerawork. There is nothing fancy or complicated about it, however it is brilliant. Considering the deeply psychological nature of the film, Demme needed to figure out how to involve his audience in the plot so they would not be merely witnesses to the mind games, but, instead, participants. Solution, shatter the fourth wall. That is, position that camera so the actors are speaking directly to the audience in close-up and extreme close-up shots, suggesting the characters in the film recognize the audience’s presence. This consistent camera technique in The Silence of the Lambs instills fear and anguish in its audience, as the characters, projected on the super-sized screen, peer down straight into viewers’ unsuspecting eyes.
As Starling meets Lecter for the first time, her FBI mentor, Dr. Crawford, warns her not to reveal anything personal to Lecter, saying, “Believe me, you do not want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.” Because of Demme’s clever camerawork, Crawford is not just saying this to Starling; he is speaking directly to the audience. In a close-up shot, Crawford looks through the screen and into the audiences’ eyes, ominously cautioning viewers about the infamous cannibal they are soon to encounter. The camera’s position also tips viewers off that, thanks to this direct communication between character and audience, Lecter will soon be in the audience’s mind, just as he gets in Starling’s.
Creating this active role for the audience engages viewers with the film, making viewers more sensitive to the danger in the plot as they feel a part of it. Although this camerawork is consistent, many of the terrifying moments this technique creates are between Lecter, Starling, and the audience, as well as between Buffalo Bill and the audience. During Starling’s first visit with Lecter, the audience spends a considerable amount of time looking straight into his eyes. At one point, Lecter confesses, “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” (During this statement, Lecter intentionally accents the word chianti and makes a slurping sound right after.) Although the audience knows Lecter is a cannibal, this is the first cannibalistic activity Lecter himself discloses. This unimaginable confession is remorseless, and therefore unconscionably, signaling to the audience how horrifying Lecter actually is. The audience’s logical understanding of his horror gets matched emotionally because this unfeeling confession comes as Lecter’s eyes lock with the audiences’ eyes. The only way to break eye-contact with Lecter is to look away from the screen. The film traps the audience; to watch the film, viewers must succumb, as Starling does, to the psychological games of Hannibal Lecter.
Moreover, Buffalo Bill addresses the audience as well, perhaps most memorably during his performance to “Goodbye Horses.” Similar to Lecter, Buffalo Bill is enigmatic; yet, unlike Lecter, Buffalo Bill is unrefined, which makes him frightening in his own respect. As Buffalo Bill sings and dances around his bordello-like costume shop/torture chamber, the audience watches from the perspective of a hand-held camera Buffalo Bill is using to record himself; thus, Buffalo Bill stares through that camera at the audience during his performance. Demme could have created a different perspective for the audience, perhaps omniscient so viewers simply observe the serial killer’s behavior. Yet, not allowing the audience to be omniscient and forcing them to establish eye contact with the killer, Demme creates a more frightening experience for his audience. If viewers are looking into Buffalo Bill’s eyes then Buffalo Bill must be looking back at the viewers.
Demme’s decision to remove the fourth wall in Silence of the Lambs was astute. Undoubtedly, there are numerous reasons this camerawork is advantageous; this argument only addresses, in part, how this technique heightens the audiences’ fear. To watch the film, viewers must look evil straight in the eyes and see evil looking back at them. And, while there are many frightening images showcased in The Silence of the Lambs, the most frightening of all may be the cold pairs of eyes looking right back into yours.