I’ve recently gotten into the “psychological horror/thriller” movie genre, for reasons unbeknownst to me. I enjoy films that keep one on the edge of his seat with intricate plots and intense scenes, not just through gore upon gore.
I was brought to the brilliant series surrounding “Hannibal Lecter”, a cannibalistic serial killer, through a bridge. Yes, you read that right. I was traveling to West Virginia to watch NKU’s women’s soccer team in my university’s first ever Division I tournament game. On my Google account, I keep interesting landmarks and abandoned places marked, so in case I’m ever headed a certain direction, I can visit them. Just five minutes off the highway was the Bellaire Toll Bridge, which spans the Ohio River between Ohio and West Virginia. It has been abandoned 25 years, but is still a site. It’s massive, rusting, and has been sentenced to death by the Coast Guard, who really is powerless to force its demolition, since it is privately owned.
The bridge is shown in the film as the iconic structure of its namesake—Bellaire, Ohio—and Bellaire is the setting of the climax of Silence of the Lambs, which was filmed shortly before the bridge was closed. And so it was that I decided to check out the series.
Though Silence of the Lambs is the second book in Tom Harris’s novel series, it was the first movie. Later, Red Dragon (the first book), Hannibal, and Hannibal Rising were brought to the screen. As I mentioned before, the movies are brilliant and live up to their critical acclaim. Silence of the Lambs swept the Academy Awards.
I will warn you that this post does contain spoilers, so if you haven’t watched the first three movies (Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal) but plan to do so (and you should), watch them first before reading this. There are also brief, graphic descriptions of some of Lector’s crimes, as well as one photo.
|The Bellaire Toll Bridge in what the movie calls "Belvedere"|
The ending of Hannibal legitimately moved me. It was not at all an emotion I expected to feel at the end of a psychological horror movie. Clarice Starling, an FBI Special Agent whose first assignment—while still in the Academy, no less—was to pick Lecter’s brain to help solve the “Buffalo Bill” case in Silence of the Lambs, has now been pursuing Lecter for much of the movie. In Silence of the Lambs, Lecter escapes from prison and becomes dormant in Italy. After a number of years, he becomes active again after his only surviving victim gets word of his whereabouts, offering the victim the chance to kill Lecter. This vengeance has been the main focus of the victim ever since he was left deformed and paralyzed. With Lecter killing once again, and the scent of a letter written by him helping to track him down, Starling turns her focus toward him.
Throughout the movie, Starling’s career is in jeopardy because of a botched drug sting that she tried to call off, but the local police refused to listen. Heat is placed on her by a superior, Paul Krendler, who had propositioned her years ago, and still desired an adulterous relationship. Starling’s refusal is costing her position as her name is dragged through the mud.
For some reason, Lecter had taken a liking to Starling; it was the only reason he talked to her in the first place. Normally, he was uncooperative with everyone. Even though Starling is suspended, she traces the kidnapped Lecter to the property of his victim, who is planning to feed him to vicious boars. Starling, seeking proper justice, puts a stop to it, but is shot in the process. She had cut Lecter loose from his restraints, and he carries her away to Krendler’s lake house. There, he removes the bullet and stitches the wound, slowly nursing her back to health.
Lecter had mentioned in a phone call with Starling that he might harm the people who are trying to harm her. When Krendler arrives for a weekend in his lake house, he is greeted by Lecter, who uses chloroform to incapacitate him. Starling wakes up a little sooner than Lecter anticipated, and she comes downstairs to find Krendler seated at the dining table and Lecter cooking. Krendler is drugged to the point that he is unaware of the danger he is in and cannot feel any pain.
Lecter removes Krendler’s hat, revealing a perforation at the top of his head. Lecter then cuts through this and removes the top of Krendler’s head, revealing Krendler’s brain. Starling begins to weep; though weak, she is aware of what is happening. Lecter begins to talk to Starling about the human brain (he was a well-known psychologist) and proceeds to cut a piece from Krendler’s, which he then cooks in the skillet and feeds to Krendler. Starling gags and continues to weep. Despite Krendler’s wrongdoing towards her, she attempts multiple times to save him. This speaks volumes about Starling, who is risking her life to save a scumbag superior from a serial killer, though she is too weak to be the least bit effective against Lecter. Finally, Lecter pushes her against the fridge, opens the freezer, traps Starling’s hair in the door, and closes it and breaks the handle. He lightly threatens her, knowing the he has a few minutes before he has to make a getaway, as Starling had called the police before she walked downstairs.
Starling, though, is so dedicated to ridding the world of Lecter’s presence that she handcuffs herself to him. For the first time in any movie, Lecter starts to worry. Starling refuses to unlock the handcuffs, which leads Lecter to grab a knife from the counter.
“Above or below the wrist?” he asks.
Starling says nothing.
“This is really going to hurt, you know.”
Lecter swings the knife, and we see Starling look away and scream.
In the next scene, Lecter is making a getaway in a boat as Starling runs down the wooded hill toward the lake in pursuit. The police come around to the back of the property, where they yell at Starling to stop and identify herself.
Starling identifies herself as she raises her arms, revealing two perfectly-healthy hands attached to her arms.
The next scene is Lecter on a plane, where he is trying to eat a meal with one hand. His other arm is in a sling.
The astonishing reality that Lecter cut off his own hand to free himself rather than Starling’s, who had been the one to handcuff him, is brought into its full perspective by examining just who Lecter is.
We really don’t get a great view of Lecter’s grisly deeds in Red Dragon, except at the beginning. The opening scene is Lecter watching an orchestral performance. A number of the members of the orchestra come to Lecter’s home afterwards for dinner. They express their grief that one of their members could not be there, as he was missing.
One guest asks, “What is this divine-looking amuse bouche?”
“If I tell you, I’m afraid you won’t even try it,” he replied.
Lecter had murdered the man and fed him to his fellow orchestra members.
Later, an FBI agent who had been working with Lecter to catch a serial killer (that turned out to be Lecter himself) stops by. He was beginning to suspect Lecter, and Lecter catches onto this. Lecter tries to kill him, but is also wounded in the process. Lecter is captured and imprisoned. Years later, as this agent works to capture the “Red Dragon”, Lecter sends the killer the agent’s address, where the agent and his family are nearly killed.
More is learned about Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, but not much of this is seen. Lecter escapes from prison after he is moved to another state; this was part of his deal with a senator to help the FBI catch the senator’s daughter, who was being held by “Buffalo Bill”. Naturally, Lecter lies to them. The police force in Tennessee doesn’t take Lecter seriously enough. He had a key hidden in his mouth, which he uses to uncuff himself and handcuff one of the two officers watching him while they feed him. He proceeds to bite off the other officer’s tongue and bludgeon him to death, spraying the cage he was being held in with blood. This officer is gutted by Lecter and hung up on the cage, which is the first thing seen by all the other officers when they come up to investigate. To escape, Lecter used his mind, not force. He killed the other officer and dumped him in the elevator shaft, but not before cutting off his face and taking his uniform. Lecter put on the uniform and the officer’s face, and posed as him lying injured on the ground. When he was placed in an ambulance, he killed the doctor and driver and got away.
Lecter receives a lot of attention in Hannibal. This is where some of his grisly crimes are displayed. Starling watches security footage of his attack on a nurse, where he bit off her tongue and beat her. This got him moved to maximum security. She pulls up pictures of some of his victims. One was pinned to a wall with three stakes. While in Italy, he lacerates a man’s stomach before hanging him from a building, and his entrails spill onto the street. A man working for his only surviving victim attempts to find Lecter, and Lecter cuts his throat, nearly decapitating him.
Throughout these movies, even though Lecter at times is an almost likeable character, the viewer gets a good idea of how evil a person he is. By the time Hannibal ends, his murder count is almost at 20.
That makes the ending of Hannibal that much more remarkable. All these murders, and yet he shows great care for Clarice Starling. He saves her life. He launches a vendetta against the man that was wronging her. And, even when she tries to kill him multiple times and prevents his escape, he chooses to cut off his own hand rather than harm her. Such incredible acts of, well, love from a brutal serial killer.
I’m not someone that goes looking for theological concepts in secular media, but occasionally I notice some. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). That might not be too hard for even non-Christians to believe. Few are the people that will not admit that, at some point, they have done something wrong, even if they don’t agree on everything that is wrong. But the Bible doesn’t stop at telling us that people do wrong. It gives us the very nature of mankind. It isn’t good:
“What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” –Romans 3:9-12
“Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.” –Romans 3:19
“Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned: (For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come…” –Romans 5:12-14
“Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” –Psalm 51:5
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” –Jeremiah 17:9
“But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. And there is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee: for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities.” –Isaiah 64:6-7
It’s not just that we do wrong, it’s that we are naturally wrongdoers. We don’t just sin, we are naturally sinners. Our bad deeds are caused by our bad nature.
|Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs|
This is where a fundamental line is drawn between religions, or between the religious and nonreligious. Many want to believe that people are naturally good, and sometimes do bad things. Some religions teach this. But true Christianity teaches exactly the opposite. People are naturally evil, and they sometimes do good things. Hannibal Lecter maimed himself to avoid harming Clarice Starling, but that didn’t change his nature, nor did it remove his guilt.
The worldview Christians must take is that the world is naturally a bad place. Admittedly, this will lead to skepticism, which I consider necessary to wise and safe living. But it does not have to lead to cynicism. I’ll explain why shortly.
In the Old Testament law, it is repeated many times that touching something unclean made a clean person unclean, and they had to purify themselves. Never can someone clean touch something unclean and make that thing clean. Things default to unclean and impure. That’s the world we live in. That is what the curse of sin, caused by Adam and Eve and passed down to every other human who ever lived (save Jesus Christ), has done.
Looking at a good deed and seeing a Hannibal Lecter is not a bad thing. Recognizing this is critical. The first part of the gospel, and a very overlooked part of the gospel, is the recognition by man that man’s nature is evil. No amount of touching acts changes that we are people guilty of very serious and bad deeds. Moving displays of compassion do not make up for our bad actions. Instead, our bad actions taint our good deeds, just like how uncleanness transferred to cleanness and made it, too, unclean.
This sounds unnecessarily harsh because we have been conditioned to see the good in people. And people do a lot of good things. I do not take away from Hannibal Lecter what he did to help Clarice Starling. It was a beautiful display that truly, deeply moved me, like few movies ever have. We can look all around us and see such actions in real life.
At the same time, however, Hannibal Lecter was a barbaric, psychotic serial killer. It would be dangerous to overlook that. And it is dangerous to overlook our own sin natures.
True justice would have Hannibal Lecter executed for his crimes. God, who is a righteous judge, should not be expected to overlook our sin because we also do good things. Justice demands that evil is punished, and that condemns us all. This realization is the fertile ground in which the gospel takes root:
“For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light: (For the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth;) Proving what is acceptable unto the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. For it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret. But all things that are reproved are made manifest by the light: for whatsoever doth make manifest is light. Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” –Ephesians 5:8-14
The Bible commands Christians to expose sin. This essentially means that we are to take the evil that is done in darkness and drag it out into the light, revealing it for what it really is. The result of exposing sin to the light is that the heart in which it dwelt becomes light. Christ gives light only when an individual realizes that what they are doing is dark. In order for the gospel to be effective, we must expose people’s sin. This, as the Bible says, is to be done in a gentle and loving manner, but it must be done.
If someone doesn’t think they are doing wrong, or thinks that their wrongdoing is just a break in their positive behavioral pattern, they won’t realize their need for the gospel. Why do they need saving? They’re adequate on their own.
But the Bible says otherwise. No one is adequate except for Jesus Christ. And it is only through Him that we can be granted the adequacy we do not deserve.
That’s why, even in having the correct view of mankind, we don’t have to become cynical. There is hope. In every passage I quoted earlier, I edited them to show only the sin nature of man. But in every passage, there is also hope:
“But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” –Romans 3:21-26
“But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification. For if by one man's offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.) Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.” –Romans 5:15-21
“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice. Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” –Psalm 51:7-10
“Heal me, O LORD, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved: for thou art my praise.” –Jeremiah 17:14
“But now, O LORD, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand. Be not wroth very sore, O LORD, neither remember iniquity for ever: behold, see, we beseech thee, we are all thy people.” –Isaiah 64:8-9
When it comes to our sin natures, there is always another side. Jesus came to Earth and lived without sin, but died to take the punishment for our sin, and now we don’t have to face God’s justice for our sin.
Yes, just like Hannibal Lecter, our good deeds to not make up for our natural evil. The gospel starts with our recognition that we need it.
Jesus, though, took the death sentence for our sin. When sin is brought to the light, healing and restoration can begin.