19 March 2010

Shutter Island

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Laeta Kalogridis
Full credits at IMDb

Over the last decade, since the wildly undervalued Bringing Out the Dead, Martin Scorsese has consistently disappointed, his features (Shine a Light excepted) feeling less like the work of the man himself than an imitator—and a poor one at that. He became the Old Master pushing factory line prestige, baiting the Academy for the Oscar long deserved and denied. Now that it finally gave him one, he can get back to having fun—to making good movies, if not substantive ones. Shutter Island doesn’t have the sort of pretensions-to-Best-Picture that accompanied Gangs of New York through The Departed: it’s upfront kitsch and old-fashioned fun, combining a lifelong love of classic cinema with an unabashed B-movie √©lan, trophies be damned. (Which might explain why the movie’s release date got pushed from awards season ’09 to this year’s dumping grounds.)

On the ferry to the titular isle, which houses an asylum and juts out of the harbor like King Kong’s hideaway, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo stand against a conspicuously rear-projected gray sky, conversing in mismatched edits. Scorsese’s long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker has famously said, perhaps apocryphally, that “matching is for pussies,” but the purposefully sloppy shots not only pay tribute to a grindier past but create a sense of unease, helped along by the martial score and the fog on loan from Hammer Studios. For the first hour anyway, you’re not supposed to be taking this creepy cheese too seriously; when a ship captain warns that “a storm’s comin’,” and DiCaprio notes that, “what I’m doin’, it’s not exactly by the book,” how could you be expected to? Especially with all the Rain! Thunderrr! And Striiiiings! that accompany images of a forbidden ward, ominous caves, and an off-limits lighthouse. I wonder if each will be visited in due time?

Set in Bah-stin hah-bah circa fifty-faw, Shutter Island casts DiCaprio, keeping his Departed accent, as a detective investigating a (literal) locked room mystery: a woman who drowned her children (the film uses fire and water like Hitchcock uses red and green in Vertigo) has escaped from her cell, without her shoes or a trace. Ruffalo is his partner; Ben Kingsley, in The Christopher Lee Role, plays the pipe-fondling doke-tuh that runs the facility; and Max von Sydow—whose appearance should clue audience members into the Hour of the Wolf allusions to follow—is Kingsley’s Karloff-like sidekick, a fellow doctor and the requisite Kraut, cheerily chewing-up his dialogue. Speaking of Germans and conspicuous camp, how about some flashbacks to the liberation of the concentration camps?

Wait, what? Ah, yes, the monstrosities of Dachau will come to microcosmically reflect DiCaprio’s own post-war past, also marked by unfathomable savagery but on a non-systemic scale. Knowing something we don’t, Leo seems from the first frame to be taking the material a lot more serious than any other actor or crew member, but the movie eventually catches up with him—Scorsese’s talent is evident in the way he slips comfortably between tones—starting with glimpses of a Nazi with his cheek blown off bleeding to death on a floor, his ice-crusted victims stacked outside in the snow. Are Nazi-style experiments now occurring on American soil? Is the O.S.S. involved? H.U.A.C.?

Red herrings galore emerge as Shutter Island moves into more hallucinatory territory that’s also increasingly gruesome, not only in its remembered historical atrocities but in its blood-soaked nightmares; the movie evokes Bruce Wayne battling the Scarecrow, as frames swimming in fluttering objects—ashes, paper, snowflakes, raindrops—suggest the fog not only of memory but of consciousness itself. The film even makes a sojourn into the aesthetic realm of torture porn, with stone tunnels that open into vast hangars (that forbidden ward!), soaked in leaky rainwater and illuminated by single bare light bulbs whose filaments have a habit of exploding. Shutter Island straddles the divide between horror movies old and new, serving as an after-the-fact through-line.

It fails, though, to become a great horror movie because it lacks any convincing subtext, even a tenuous one. It poses its Big Moral Question near the end: is it better to live as a monster, or die a good man? This, of course, is one of those pseudo-moral questions that novelists and screenwriters like to invent, and Scorsese thankfully doesn’t spend a lot time pretending to examine it. He’s too busy reveling in the schlock, and untangling the complexities of the script (based on Dennis Lehane’s novel). The convoluted conspiracies that DiCaprio uncovers obscure the movie’s larger points, suggesting that maybe it doesn’t really have any. No serious ones, anyway, though the film does present a world so barbaric it’s psychotic, a world of H-bombs, Holocausts, and filicide, a world of competing violences and no surviving moral order. And in such a crazy world, who’s really crazy? Huh? It certainly wouldn’t seem to be the people safely tucked away on a remote island. Grade: B+

Watch the trailer:

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