dir: Martin Scorsese
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Marty and Leo, sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G. He puts him in every one of his goddamn flicks these days. If there were a way Scorsese could have figured out to get Leo onstage for that last Strike a Light Rolling Stones concert flick, probably playing Keef Richards or a better version of Ron Wood, he would have done so. Unlucky for us that they didn’t.
It’s a remarkable line of high quality flicks that they’ve been pumping out together, which brings us to their latest collaboration. Shutter Island is a departure for both of them, since I can’t think of the last time either of them, apart or as a couple, made a psychological thriller / horror flick. But they’ve done it now, so let’s see what the fuss, if any, is all about.
Shutter Island is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, a writer whose other books, always situated in Boston in different eras, generally follow, like Scorsese usually does, a more down-to-earth, true crime feel to the proceedings. This is a departure for all concerned, except some of the characters get to use that awesome Southie – Dorchester - Masshole accent. Lucky for them, unlucky for us.
The other Lehane stuff you might have heard of would be movies like Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone and his numerous other crime novels that haven’t yet been made into movies. Mystic River, in my humble opinion, was utter shite, but the world disagreed. Gone Baby Gone was superb, though, and justified, for me, the continued focus on the goings-on of the Dorchester scum Lehane is so obsessed with.
The setting changes to an island in the middle of Boston Harbor, and chronologically, it’s set some time just after WWII and the Korean War. A US Marshal, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), is sent to an extremely high security psychiatric facility to find a missing patient.
The facility is for the criminally insane, and though they’re happy to break out the electroshock therapy and the lobotomy needle at the drop of an inmate’s underwear, the overseers of this facility seem to be trying to be more progressive in their approach to mental health these days, endeavouring to use techniques and therapies that are less invasive and inhuman, and more gentle and cuddly.
Teddy has a partner called Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), and they both set about uncovering the mystery of Rachel Solando’s disappearance. Guilty of murdering her three children, we are told that she persists in believing that this never happened, and that her delusional insulation is so complete that she convinces herself the other inmates and attendants and guards are all her friends, acquaintances and neighbours, and that she’s back in her house, anticipating her kids’ return from school.
Right from the start we’re clued in to a number of oddnesses going on. It’s a mystery as to what’s going on, but anything set at a psych facility, especially for the murderously insane, is going to be both mysterious and horrifying.
As Teddy uncovers more and more details about the case, he also reveals more about himself to his new work colleague, and about his own deep-seeded trauma regarding his wife’s recent death, and his experiences liberating Dachau at the war’s tail-end.
The Holocaust scenes, as they always are, except in Life is Beautiful, where they provided the backdrop for a delightful romp, are harrowing, but a scene involving some US Army soldiers’ dealings with the Dachau guards is even nastier, and is a brutal scene not lessened by its surreal nature.
Speaking of the surreal, seeing as this film is set at a psych facility, and deals with some very mad people, much of the flick transpires as a fevered dream itself. Teddy has particularly horrible nightmares, but his daily dealings with the staff, inmates and guards of the hospital are just as unsettling.
As his investigation goes on, a hurricane is tearing up the island at the same time, making it even harder to track down the missing patient. Thing is, though, anyone who’s ever watched more than three films in their lives, at least one of them being The Wicker Man, knows that any time some invites you to an island to find a missing woman / girl, some seriously awful shit is going to go down.
I’m not ashamed to say that I think Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the greatest actors of his generation. Yes, I know it’s a bold statement to praise one of the best known and most successful actors around at the moment, who gets as much play in the media because of his supermodel girlfriends as he does from his solid work in so many flicks. It’s just that because he’s Leo, people just dismiss him, and rightly so. Playing Jack in Titanic should have been a millstone, an albatross around his neck that destroyed any chance of future happiness or success as an adult actor. Compared to others of that level of young fame, you’d think he’d be knocking off convenience stores for meth money, or ‘guest’ starring on Celebrity Rehab before dying on a feculent motel floor.
Yet he’s still around. I don’t know if the girl’s still find him pretty, but he does bring a certain intensity to his roles, which I think is what holds him in such good stead. I can’t imagine him playing a sad sack bureaucrat at the Department of Administrative Affairs, as an administrator administering the administration of administrables, but I can and did buy him as Howard Hughes in The Aviator, as a cowardly bourgeois suburban shlub in Revolutionary Road, as an undercover cop in The Departed, as a CIA agent in Body of Lies, and whatever role he’s played since 2000 (after, way after The Beach, which still sucks as much now as it did then). He was even good as a racist mercenary in Blood Diamond, a flick ludicrous on levels previously only theorised about by scientists until its actual release. Of the contemporary actors out there, he’s one of the few that, for me, is the most reminiscent of the stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
And though he’s worked for Scorsese for so long that people are starting to talk, it seems like his best work is still to come. He’s great here, bringing a fearful focus to what is a very difficult part to play. It’s difficult because he has to earn our sympathy despite a setting that wants us so much to not trust him or what’s going on around him. Paranoia and terror suffuses every cell and every poorly lit corridor of this horrible, aging facility, and Teddy’s stumbling progress through it brings us closer not to knowledge, or a solution, but to the lengths Teddy is willing to go to in order to find out the truth being hidden from him by all the people who are trying to hide it.
I would say the supreme virtue of his performance is that he remains a sympathetic yet tragic figure throughout. The enclosed world of the asylum is treacherous, and ever-shifting, and the complexities of the plot are revealed to not be as complex as once implied, but the point is, the tragedy is, what Teddy finds out about himself along the way is more devastating than any of the crimes occurring at the Ashecliff facility.
Flicks like Shutter Island, and Session 9, and, to a substantially lesser extent, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and its Spice Girls version Girl, Interrupted, remind me of one unassailable fact: Psych facilities are inherently frightening to me. They don’t need supernatural bullshit, gore or kill-crazy murderers running around lopping off people’s heads to frighten me any more than just seeing these places depicted. Those walls, those atmospherics, give me the howling fantods before anything else does, and, of course, Scorsese, being a master filmmaker, takes full advantage of the environs to deliver and maintain a tense, harrowing, deeply paranoid atmosphere.
Scorsese flicks, for me, are more to be admired than loved. I cannot and do not unreservedly praise any flick by Scorsese, because the truth is despite his title as America’s Greatest Living Director, I really don’t like most of his flicks. I can see the virtue of many of them, and can quote you dozens of lines from most of them, but there is some discomfiting quality to his flicks that consistently puts me off.
The quality, whatever it is, that prevents me from liking Goodfellas, Casino, or whatever else by Marty, isn’t present here, because I guess I felt more taken in by the story, and by the way it was put together, with superlative cinematography and editing, and a (for me) terrifying musical score that really hammered home the horrifying elements of the story, even before anything horrible occurred. The performances are uniformly excellent, with pretty much everyone putting in solid turns; even Sir Ben Kingsley manages to put in a decent performance for once, suitably restrained, almost willingly letting the other performances and story elements be ‘bigger’ than him so he can pull it all back down when required.
There are fairly large aspects of the story, of the mystery, that will piss people off as being either unlikely or just flat-out fucking ludicrous. I have to admit, having worked out the ‘mystery’ pretty much in the first fifteen minutes, the question becomes less ‘what happened/’ and more so ‘why is it happening?’, and elements towards the end become less believable. But when you’re working towards something as devastating as the end of this film, and considering the sensitivity and empathy the psychiatric staff are shown (for once) as trying to exhibit, it becomes less unbelievable. It also ends on an ambiguous note, considering the harrowing trawl through madness we’ve been experiencing for two hours, that is no less powerful for it.
It’s a pretty overwrought and harrowing experience overall, but I enjoyed it, well, as much as you can enjoy these kinds of flicks. It’s like saying you enjoyed receiving a blowjob during a car crash; hard to believe but not impossible.
Keep up the good work, Marty/Leo, and get a room, funboys.
8 times the image of Teddy’s wife’s back burning like coal embers, as ash rains upon them still haunts me out of 10
“Don’t you get it? You’re a rat in a maze” – I’m not the rat, I am the Cheese– Shutter Island.