When a film fanatic brings up the notion of a great antagonist or villain, Hannibal Lector tends to come into mind. Although introduced cinematically in Manhunter (1986), Silence of the Lambs (1991) brought the character of Hannibal Lector into the forefront of being a popularized antagonist.
Still, Hannibal Lector wasn’t involved in Silence of the Lambs solely to be the antagonist. His character, played by Anthony Hopkins, was a dense character who worked with the protagonist Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) to help catch serial killer Buffalo Bill before his latest kidnapping involving a senator's daughter goes wrong.
Lector’s ploy to help Clarice turns out to be more than just getting a better jail cell, and it reveals the beautiful screenwriting of the antagonists of the film. With this in mind, below will analyze the antagonists of Silence of the Lambs and some motifs about the subject. Let’s take a look!
Still from 'Silence of the Lambs'. Photo credit: Screenrant
How Working With Evil Can Benefit the Protagonist
The motivating factor of Clarice working with Lector is to catch a more dangerous foe who is on the loose. After all, Lector is already locked up, so what harm could he pose on Jack Crawford and Clarice while they try catching Buffalo Bill? It’s a representation of a protagonist working with evil to benefit their ultimate goal.
This screenwriting tactic is utilized best when the protagonist is left with no choice but to work with a previous antagonist. It’d be the equivalent of Batman working with the Joker to stop a potential alien threat from destroying the earth. Only to realize the Joker agreed to escape the clutches of the prison he was in.
Non-existent Batman storylines aside, pairing up a rookie detective in Clarice with a mad sociopathic genius like Lector creates a compelling story against the clock. If Clarice doesn’t work with Lector, the Senator’s daughter Catherine Martin will die. If Clarice isn’t careful with Lector and his games, it could be a total waste of time and nothing but entertainment for Lector.
Although Hannibal Lector is painted as evil immediately, he isn’t the main antagonist of the film. Clarice is forced to work with Lector to catch the psychopathic killer Buffalo Bill. Portrayed by Ted Levine, Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb murders overweight women and skins them to make a woman suit for himself.
The gritty description of Buffalo Bill may be difficult for most to digest. As best described by Hannibal Lector, Buffalo Bill wasn’t born a killer; he turned into one through years of systematic abuse. Although his backstory was largely omitted for the film, we get a sense of how troubled of a character he is from Lector’s description alone.
Personally, Buffalo Bill has constant moments of self-hatred, going to great lengths to change his appearance through his murders. His act of violence is pretend being injured, ask for help, and knock the victim out in a surprise attack, kidnapping her. This act is only depicted once in the film when he kidnaps Catherine Martin, but it’s enough for us to understand how he operates.
Hannibal Lector is a mixed-bag of helping and being an antagonist to Clarice’s mission of stopping Buffalo Bill. His cryptic clues and offering for help make him an aid to Clarice, but his failure to plainly say who Buffalo Bill creates another roadblock for Clarice.
As the film progresses, we see the true intention of Lector revealed, after he escapes and murders his guards after meeting with the Senator. This scene gave us a glimpse into the true nature of Lector and what he’s capable of. He never cared about being transferred to a better prison for his final days and wanted what everyone wants in freedom.
Dr. Frederick Chilton
Although not as thought of as an antagonist, Dr. Frederick Chilton greatly hinders Clarice’s and Crawford’s mission with Lector. The character is also introduced with him making an odd flirtatious gesture at Clarice. This scene demonstrates to us as an audience that Chilton isn’t to be trusted as a good character.
Throughout Clarice’s meetings with Lector and progression to finding who Buffalo Bill is, Chilton grows jealous of Starling's success, eventually hogging the spotlight after Lector meets with the Senator. Chilton is such an unlikable character that we don’t care that Lector plans to murder him at the end of the film.
Hannibal Lector Becoming the Antagonist
Hannibal Lector showing his true nature, killing his guards, escaping, and hinting his murder of Chilton demonstrates what could go wrong when the protagonist works with evil to accomplish their goal. Lector doesn’t hint in any way of murdering Clarice, but it sets up a potential sequel where the two will meet again. If only Hannibal (2001) could’ve lived up to its expectations and be the perfect film that is Silence of the Lambs.