Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
February 2010

The cabinet of Dr. Scorsese

The maestro pulls film-history strings for a dazzlingly surreal, old-school funhouse

Shutter Island
Paramount Pictures
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Max von Sydow, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, John Carroll Lynch, Jackie Earle Haley and Ted Levine
Rated R / 2 hours, 18 minutes
Opens February 19, 2010
(out of four)

Film directors are, first and foremost, film geeks. Anyone who's ever seen an interview with Martin Scorsese knows he epitomizes that fact. He can make a Tarantino interview look tame by comparison.

Watching Shutter Island, we are reminded of his incomparable vocabulary of film language, style and history, his understanding of the relationships between image, sound and space. This movie is Marty opening up his cinematic playbook. It is his most playful movie since After Hours (which remains one of his best films, though largely unseen) - and I say that more in terms of form than content (not that the two are mutually exclusive, mind you).

Yes, it's still immersed in the traditional Scorsese territory of guilt/redemption and the dark underbelly of human nature, but in the name of, among other things, classic funhouse horror and the wit-drenched psychological and/or political potboilers of Hitchcock and others.

As he proves here, he can boil a pot about as well as anyone. The joy of Shutter Island is in watching it unfold as much stylistically as narratively. The self-conscious pounding of the opening score tells us it's a 1930s monster movie, which transforms into a Gothic film noir, then into a Hitchcockian suspense thriller, then again into a lush giallo film - and in between, intermittently shifting into a Kafkaesque nightmare, or a Buñuelian one, or a Kubrickian one. And let's throw some German expressionism in there for good measure. Dr. Caligari, I presume?

If that's too many references for you, well, my apologies - but the stylistic elements are such an integral part to what Scorsese is doing that they're impossible to ignore. Remember when I said form and content weren't mutually exclusive? Yeah. (And the film is so dense with stylistic sampling that, I assure you, there are still plenty of references I've missed.)

It's true, as others have noted, that Shutter Island is a significant stylistic departure for Scorsese - but that's part of what makes it exciting. Like previous departures of his (The King of Comedy and The Age of Innocence are examples), it is both distinctly different and distinctly, indisputably him. The him in this case is a master of style, atmosphere and pure filmmaking, and he turns what could have been a conventional thriller into a feast for the senses.

Shutter Island continues his decade-long partnership with Leonardo DiCaprio, who seems to uncover new dimensions with every performance. (Scorsese, who has always gotten the very best of his actors, deserves some share of the credit for this.) Here, he plays U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, who is assigned to the titular island to investigate a mysterious disappearance at a maximum-security mental institution in the mid-1950s.

Teddy's investigation, however, doesn't just center around how and why (if?) Rachel Salondo (the great Emily Mortimer) escaped, but what exactly goes on here at Ashecliffe. In a delicious bit of casting, the two lead doctors at the institution are played by Ben Kingsley and the ageless Max von Sydow, masters of the ambiguously sinister. From the very beginning, Teddy (and the audience) feel stilted by the doctors, wary of the strange looks he seems to be getting and increasingly suspicious about the strange goings-on at the hospital.

Teddy certainly has reason to be cynical. A veteran of World War II (not the first time a Scorsese protagonist has been a recent war veteran, eh?), he is haunted not only by his experiences overseas but by the death of his wife (Michelle Williams) a few years later.

The film follows Teddy's own shifting perspective - moving in and out of dreams, memories and reality as his (and our) interpretations of what we see and hear mutate. Scorsese's approach is largely expressionistic - and with good reason, since it's all about its main character's perception of how, why and what is going on. One of my favorite touches is the clouds of smoke through which we see both Teddy and Dr. Cawley (Kingsley) - calling to mind Orson Welles' entrance as The Advocate in his adaptation of The Trial. Or the way Scorsese cuts in images frozen in time (the first appearance of Teddy's wife, for example). Or the bright white fog of the opening shot. Or, better yet, the deliberate visual anachronisms that pepper so many of the compositions.

The overall success of the storytelling lies, I believe, in how early you pick up on Scorsese's approach. We should know almost right away that they - meaning the powers that be at Ashecliffe - are hiding something. That all is not what it seems. You know something sinister, perhaps inexplicable, perhaps supernatural, is going on. All that visual distortion isn't an accident. Nothing is ever played straight. The film's sensationally rendered dream sequences - not to mention the war memories, which play in the same surrealistic style as Teddy's dreams - are not only enrapturing, but toy with our own sense of equilibrium.

It is inevitable, in a film like this, that there will be twists along the way - including, generally speaking, a Big One. Twists aren't solely about whether or not they surprise us - after all, that only works the first time you see it - but about what it means to a character's point of view. This is why, to use a recent example, the beginning-of-third-act twist in Eastern Promises was such a failure and a farce. Even if we saw it coming or had seen hints, it was structured in order to provide a Gotcha! moment - even though the two characters through which it was revealed already knew about the twist all along. Only the audience had been in the dark. That's the definition of a poor twist.

Shutter Island has its share of secrets that I can't reveal - but suffice it to say that they not only fully hold up dramatically, but also underscore the importance of Scorsese's stylistic and structural choices. That some of the expository and revelatory passages in the film are a bit clunky seems like a small flaw given some of the virtuoso filmmaking on display. Shutter Island shows us a filmmaker still challenging his own creative impulses - and proving he can still surprise and fascinate us. Or if you will, to borrow from a Hitchcock title whose influence pops up in this film, to hold us spellbound.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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