Friday, February 19, 2010

Shutter Island

I’d like to know what goat Dennis Lehane sacrificed to what long forgotten Sumarian God to get the kind of treatment he gets from Filmmakers. First Clint Eastwood and now Martin Scorsese, we’re talking about a man so lucky with adaptations that not even Ben Affleck can fuck him up. And I wouldn’t trust Ben Affleck to hold eggs.

So yeah one of favorite authors being adapted by my favorite filmmaker period, to say that my expectations for Shutter Island where astronomical would be an understatement. When I found out I was going to see the film in Austin I’m unashamed to admit that my thoughts abruptly blanked out into one long “SQUEEEE!” Somehow they where met. In fact this is one case where I would venture to say the adaptation is an improvement on the source material. As Scorsese brings one last turn of the screw that even Lehane didn’t have the torque to pull.

Though many might be worried by memories of Cape Fear, Shutter Island is about as far from that film as you can get in terms of control and tone.

Shutter Island for those who’ve somehow managed to miss the film’s gignormous marketing campaign, follows two Federal Marshall’s (or as Di Caprio’s Boston Accent puts it Federaaahlll Maaaahshaahlls) who investigate a missing persons case on an island prison in Massachusetts bay. After an investigation that seems beyond shady it seems like there might be some good old fashioned conspiring going on and before you can say “Giant hurricane hits the place releasing several of the island’s most dangerous prisoners,” things really go to shit.

For those who complained that The Departed was just Scorsese doing Scorsese (as if he should be doing something else. I mean why keep making brilliant, darkly spiritual dramas that vibrate with authenticity and style) Shutter Island has him at his most experimental since Bringing Out The Dead (And the film so far has been similarly polarizing with a sixty five on Rotten Tomatoes and a sixty four at metacritic). Shutter Island runs ragged through as many references and disciplines as your average Girl Talk track. The obvious precursor is Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor, with its frenzied paranoid style and madness as a contagion theme. But there’s also Val Lewton hanging around with the all consuming carnivorous shadows and the buried secrets in the past eroding the present. In the extreme imagery in dream sequences that make up so much of the movies meat its possible to feel the dark operatic tones of Chan Wook Park. There’s even a touch of Gialli here, albeit more Mario Bava then Lucio Fulci. But I think that the key to the movie is the one that Scorsese gave to us at BNAT, by insisting that The Red Shoes play before it. The fact that Scorsese is a Powell disciple is no secret, but I don’t know if its ever been clearer then here.

Powell’s was a cinema of dreams. More so I think then any other director. Yes more so then Fellini, Cocteau, Lynch, Gilliam, and all the rest. This might strike some as odd if only for the fact that most of Powell’s films are fairly straight forward on a narrative level. Break them down to their base components and they seem down right unremarkable, the story of the feuds in a ballet company, a film following the carrier of a dedicated military man, horny nuns in the Himalya’s. But watching his films is a completely different experience, sensual, overpowering, and occasionally nightmarish. Powell understood the ways in which dreams and cinema line up, the way both subliminally code through imagery and constant repetition, how both hinge on something ineffable, the way both can turn on you on a dime and suddenly sink their teeth into your neck. Think the expressionistic sets in Tales Of Hoffman, think of the horrifying climax (the whole thing really) in Black Narcissus and think lastly of that last horrible, inevitable piece of dream logic that Powell deployed like an A Bomb in The Red Shoes.

Shutter Island is a film that operates on that level. Its horrific in an indefinable way. A film that takes your subconscious and gnaws on it until its bloody.

But of course under all the influence and juxtaposition, the only person a Scorsese movie belongs to is Scorsese. His films often deal with morality and ethics, and if you look at it from this angle Shutter Island fits in neatly with the rest of Scorsese’s oeuvre. How much responsibility can you take for actions that are not entirely your own anymore? Shutter Island is an existential thriller. Its like Camus collaborated with Hitchcock. I am reminded of Joe Hill’s great passage in Heart Shaped Box that noted that “Its not houses that are haunted but minds.”

He assembles a dream team here. DiCaprio using his natural callowness to his advantage, Mark Ruffalo making an excellent straight man, grounding all the crazy. Ben Kingsley actually seems to be giving a shit for the first time since Sexy Beast, a sight so foregein that it took me a minute to recognize it. Max Von Sydow shows no ill effects from the vast amount of sodium penathol that Brett Ratner pumped into him when he kidnapped him and held his children at gunpoint to star in Rush Hour 3 (That’s what I tell myself happened anyway. Because the alternative is that Max Von Sydow agreed to be in Rush Hour 3) . He’s having the most fun in the movie hiding behind thick coke bottle glasses and a sinister German accent, and when he posits late in the film syringe hidden behind his back “Ven you See va Monsta vou must destroooy it!” well its kind of amazing.

Jackie Earle Haley and Ted Levine both do what they do best, name act like terrifyingly convincing nutjobs as does Elias Koteas, although his make up looks so distractingly like Robert De Niro’s in Frankenstein, that for a few confused seconds I thought it was De Niro, and was disappointed when I realized Scorsese hadn’t kept an amazing cameo hidden. Patricia Clarkson and Emily Mortimer both do strong work in what amounts to cameos, and Michelle Williams is kind of stunning and fragile, in the role that ends up becoming the dark heart of the picture.

Stylistically this film is top notch as well. I love it when Scorsese shoots with Robert Richardson (Who between this and Inglorious Basterds is having one hell of a year) and the fact that they get to collaborate makes me excited for Hugo Cabearet (even if I am disappointed Silence is getting pushed back again). There’s something in Richardson that brings out the daring side in Scorsese. The three films they’ve made together so far, this, The Aviator, and Bringing Out The Dead showcase Scorsese at his most extreme in terms of imagery. He sets himself up with some pretty challenging motifs here, people bursting into ash, pools of water and blood spreading, the dead bodies of the innocent. Not since Friedkin made the central image of To Live And Die In LA that of people being shot in the face has a major filmmaker in a mainstream movie made such relentlessly unpleasant imagery so front and center to his film. And yet far from being overwhelmed Scorsese makes these images harrowingly beautiful.

Shutter Island is not a safe film. Its not here to tell you everything is OK. Its here to take a piece out of you. And brother its gonna.


Andrew K. said...

So jealous. I can't wait to see this. Every time Scorsese makes a movie I mentally take out a place from my top 10. He just always works for me, and you're right about him pushing the extreme with imagery in The Aviator. Good review.

Franco Macabro said...

"Powell’s was a cinema of dreams. More so I think then any other director. Yes more so then Fellini, Cocteau, Lynch, Gilliam, and all the rest"

Just added Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes to my must watch list simply because of this quote from your review!

Also, the fact that you said that this movie has a bit of Bava in it just made me want to watch it that much more!

Great review, Ill be checking out Shutter Island as soon as its out!

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Andrew EE: Glad you see that with The Aviator, I can't help but feel like that movie really does get underrated.

@ FC: I'm glad to hear it FC. You're in for a treat. Powell's movies can seem a bit slow, but if you give them a chance to work on you, they will.

Bryce Wilson said...

Some Further Thoughts: Was surprised by how well Shutter Island played with a general audience. Some weren't buying it, but there where those who literally moaned during the holocaust dream and Ward C scenes.

Also said Holocaust scenes reminded me that Scorsese was the original director for Schindler's List. Curious if he worked any of his ideas for that film into this one.

Will Errickson said...

Wonderful post. I was not so much a fan of the Lehane novel but I could see what attracted Scorsese to it. Can't wait to check it out. And now I need to see The Red Shoes again.

Bryce Wilson said...

Thank You Sir!

But hey any chance to see The Red Shoes is a good one.