Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Shutter Island


Martin Scorsese's latest film, Shutter Island, is a stylish, artfully made work that establishes a powerful atmosphere of dread and despair right from its opening minutes, as a ship emerges from a thick gray fog and U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) sweats and shakes while staring into the mirror. Together with his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), they're heading to the foreboding, forbidding Shutter Island, a combination prison and mental hospital designed to hold only the most violent and dangerous mentally ill patients. One of these patients has escaped, and Daniels' investigation of this mysterious place will be a challenge to his own sanity. Scorsese's film is an odd, unsettling, potent concoction, at least for most of its length, even if it's painfully obvious just where it's heading long before it ever gets there — and even if its inevitable final act is disappointing in its predictability.

There is a nicely suggestive idea contained in this final act, nonetheless — and if it's not obvious by now, it's impossible to talk about this film without talking about its ending — and Scorsese does manage to make this resolution heart-wrenching and affecting even as it's also trite and formulaic. There have been countless films that revolved around the kind of pat reversal that Scorsese (working from a source novel by Dennis Lehane) tries to pull off here: see, the marshal was really a patient all along, and the film's whole convoluted plot, with all its conspiracies and weird details, was an elaborate attempt by the hospital's staff to shock Teddy out of his delusions. Of course, this could only fail to be obvious to those who have never seen a movie like this before, to those unfamiliar with the generic conventions that control this kind of movie. The thing is, no matter how familiar this territory is, Scorsese makes it a thrilling ride to traverse it once again. Right from the very first scene, it's obvious that something's up: something seems subtly off about the initial interactions between Chuck and Teddy, and it's not just the way Scorsese's camera gently directs attention to mundane acts like the sharing of cigarettes. We feel that these small gestures, these details, will be important later; Scorsese's visual cues suggest a mystery that revolves around the very basic precepts of this situation. It's possible that some may even guess, already, where this is all heading; it occurred to me, at least.

It almost doesn't even matter, though, as Scorsese makes the film's introductory scenes so compelling that any explanation seems unnecessary. There's an air of unreality to these opening scenes that never quite goes away. The sky behind Teddy and Chuck is somehow too dramatic, too beautiful with its thick gray clouds and the roiling water. Few commentators have failed to note the influence of British filmmakers Powell and Pressburger on this film, but it goes beyond the post-World War II setting or the handful of dizzying overhead shots looking down a cliff, directly referencing Black Narcissus. The stylization, the studio-bound aesthetic of Powell and Pressburger's lurid fantasies, lingers over this film even though Scorsese's shooting on location. Shutter Island, as a place, is a fusion of movie archetypes, a perfect genre location, all dark corridors dripping with water, flickering lights everywhere, barbed wire, a decrepit old cemetery, a lighthouse strangely guarded at all hours, where terrible experiments are rumored to take place. This is a movie-movie, a movie that's constantly reminding one of other movies, that revels in its genre conventions and self-consciously keeps pointing them out. That's certainly apparent in Teddy's troubling visions of Andrew Laeddis (Elias Koteas), who he believes is a patient here. Laeddis was the man who Teddy blames for the fire that killed his wife Dolores (Michelle Williams), but Laeddis is such a sinister, over-the-top movie monster — with a scar across his face, a milky white eye and a melodramatic leer — that it's impossible to believe he's a real person. It's obvious from the start that he's a mental projection, a way for Teddy to avoid the real truth, whatever it is, about his wife and his past. Koteas plays this monstrous character with clear delight, relishing the melodramatics, playing him like Scorsese's Travis Bickle a few years older and even further gone, twitching and grinning with his deformed face.


This is the kind of pleasure Shutter Island offers, and it's not an incidental pleasure by any means. Scorsese fully adapts to the conventions of the horror genre here, offering up some rather startling jump scares, like the half-naked inmate who leaps out of a dark passageway to scream "tag, you're it" and then races back off into the darkness. The fun here isn't necessarily in the content but in the execution, the way Scorsese continually does exactly what one expects but puts his own idiosyncratic twist on it. The atmosphere of the island, almost constantly overcast, with stormy weather always looming overhead, is one of slowly creeping dread. Scorsese further enhances this mood by inserting Teddy's internality into the film, a mix of visions, dreams and memories: of his wife, of the woman he's supposed to be finding on the island (played at various times by Patricia Clarkson or Emily Mortimer), and especially of his past as one of the soldiers who first walked into Dachau at the close of World War II. The film is located at this particular historical moment, in 1954, with the nightmare of the Holocaust not so distant, and Scorsese does a good job of capturing the paranoia and the terror generated by this travesty: most particularly, the fear of science as a monstrous corrupter, responsible for both the hydrogen bomb and the devilish human experiments of Dachau and Auschwitz. This fear informs Teddy's own paranoia, his solid belief that terrible experiments are being performed on the patients on Shutter Island. His rantings, increasingly unhinged throughout the film, draw from the fear of Nazism's anti-human sensibility spreading domestically, and from the kind of distrust of human decency that things like the Milgram experiments tended to confirm.

Some of that aura of dread comes, too, from Scorsese's soundtrack selections. He's assembled a compelling, complex soundtrack in which the music, frequently grating and eerie, seems to emanate from the harsh terrain of the island itself. Challenging classical and modernist music by John Cage, Gustav Mahler, Morton Feldman, György Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki and John Adams is omnipresent here, solitary notes and clusters of notes hovering in the still, damp air, occasionally interrupted by the piercing screams of the inmates. Scorsese's use of sound here is as compelling, as sensitive, as his more familiar pop music soundtracks in Mean Streets or Goodfellas. The music is so dense, so intense in its effect, that the moments of silence, the moments where the music cuts away to reveal a profound and empty quiet, hit as though all the air had been suddenly sucked away, leaving behind this awful vacuum. The complexity and eerie beauty of this soundtrack is often matched by the quality of Scorsese's images, which have a kind of processed grandeur that one associates with the Technicolor era, another reason the Powell/Pressburger comparisons are so salient. At one point, flickering flames slash up across the screen like fragments of Brakhagian light and color, as though Scorsese were superimposing this kind of experimental light study atop his images, playing across the faces of the actors. Even Scorsese's judicious application of CGI is affecting, and eerie: a shot where Teddy embraces Dolores in a vision, only to have her turn to ash and burn away, is devastating. The ash, often raining down around Teddy in the nightmare visions that haunt him, represents both the fire that killed his wife, and the human ashes that often rained from the smokestacks of the death camps when the ovens were running.

As powerful as the film often is, its final act is clumsy and uneven, delivering exactly the expected payoff and relegating way too much time to the hospital psychiatrist Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) laboriously explaining the whole thing. If the rest of the film is affecting and off-kilter, packed with compelling imagery, the finale switches gears for a succession of talking heads spelling out the entire plot. The film is a mood piece where the mood is abruptly disrupted in the last act. Nevertheless, even here Scorsese crafts some stunning sequences, particularly an absolutely horrifying flashback in which Teddy finally remembers, or understands, what actually happened to his wife. Still, there's an unavoidable aura of disappointment throughout the final scenes, a sense that Scorsese had abandoned the film's visual richness and imagination for a rote series of psychological explanations and diagrams, a nod to Psycho with Kingsley in the role as the psychologist profiler, diagramming and lecturing about the film's plot. If the rest of the film provides evidence of Scorsese's visual and emotional deftness, this ending perhaps suggests the limits of his imagination.

11 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

Your discussion of the soundtrack and the use of classical motifs in this jarring and atmospheric score is for me teh most valuable aspect of yet another magnificent essay here at ONLY THE CINEMA.

"Some of that aura of dread comes, too, from Scorsese's soundtrack selections. He's assembled a compelling, complex soundtrack in which the music, frequently grating and eerie, seems to emanate from the harsh terrain of the island itself. Challenging classical and modernist music by John Cage, Gustav Mahler, Morton Feldman, György Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki and John Adams is omnipresent here, solitary notes and clusters of notes hovering in the still, damp air, occasionally interrupted by the piercing screams of the inmates. Scorsese's use of sound here is as compelling, as sensitive, as his more familiar pop music soundtracks in Mean Streets or Goodfellas. The music is so dense, so intense in its effect, that the moments of silence, the moments where the music cuts away to reveal a profound and empty quiet, hit as though all the air had been suddenly sucked away, leaving behind this awful vacuum. The complexity and eerie beauty of this soundtrack is often matched by the quality of Scorsese's images, which have a kind of processed grandeur that one associates with the Technicolor era, another reason the Powell/Pressburger comparisons are so salient."

Yes it's true that many have discussed Powell and Pressburger, and had I written a formal review myself I would have also broached it. I didn't have the problem that you had with the final third, mainly because the film at that ppoint began to move towards that fabulous pay-off, which I was completely startled by, not having read Lehane's novel. As I stated on other blogs, I was smitten by the extraordinary use of weather throughout, which externalized the action and provided some delicious set pieces in a lighthouse, a cave (Patricia Clarkson was terrific here), a cemetery burial vault, and in a study and cafeteria.

After seeing the film a second time I was able to point to a few of the "clues" along the way that portended the outcome including the caferia scene where Di Caprio scratches furiously with a pencil on a pad, seemingly knowing it would drive an inmate bonkers, and the storm scene where the police captain drives to the cemetery, knowing exactly where Di Caprio and his partner are.

In any case, as this was a spectacular entertainment I am frankly unconcerned with the few narrative inconsistences, as this film succeeds in what it set out to do, largely on the strenth of Scorsese's comelling visuals, and the complicity of his terrific cast.

Again, you exhaustive analysis of the music and use of sound is a singular achievement. Kudos to you!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam. I've seen your comments about this film and knew you liked it more than I did. I agree with you that there was a lot to like here, and in many respects it's a typically beautiful Scorsese entertainment. I guess I was just disappointed that for such an aesthetically rich film, it ultimately suffered from such a lackluster denouement. For all the ambition Scorsese showed here — in the music, in the stylized settings, in the use of weather and atmosphere to drive the narrative — he ultimately falls back on genre clichés and overly familiar devices.

Carson said...

Ed, I was looking forward to your thoughts on the film, since it's been in my head for the past week. I was blown away the first time I saw it and decided I needed to go back for a second viewing. Upon revisiting, the film's weaknesses stood out more, especially the didactic explanation, which you astutely compare to Psycho. However, like Sam, I was only momentarily bothered by this trite twist, and I think that the moments that follow it more than redeem it. The flashback to the tragedy is one of the most devastating scenes in the film, and the final line of dialogue is wonderfully thought-provoking, opening up a whole new mystery that I find even more compelling than the central mystery that exists throughout.

I love your analysis of the historical moment that Scorsese chose and its effects on Teddy: "This fear informs Teddy's own paranoia, his solid belief that terrible experiments are being performed on the patients on Shutter Island. His rantings, increasingly unhinged throughout the film, draw from the fear of Nazism's anti-human sensibility spreading domestically, and from the kind of distrust of human decency that things like the Milgram experiments tended to confirm."

I haven't heard this reading put into words so eloquently, and it singlehandedly puts to rest claims of Holocaust exploitation. Some found that the use of Dachau was insignificant other than to provide another layer of menace to Teddy's delusions, but I agree with you that it was intimately bound to the dread that pervades the whole work.

It would be great to see this film featured in one of your Conversations; I find it to be equally, if not more complex, than Inglourious Basterds, the other recent film you discussed with Jason Bellamy.

DavidEhrenstein said...

While a monster hit, this is very minor Marty. Clearly he's thinking of B classics like Shock Corrior, Bedlam and Isle of the dead, but what he has here is a lot closer to an old moldy Edgar Wallace adaptation pumped up to giant size.

The "trick" on which the plot pivots yeilds no deepr level of meanign than a birdbath.

Drew said...

Nice piece Ed. I have to agree with the others who weren't terribly bothered by the ending. Though a bit banal in execution it may be, I still found it somewhat effective and it did nothing to negate the tapestry style and audacious visuals (some of the best of Scorsese's career) I'd relished for the previous two hours.

I know Carson and myself had similar initial reactions, and having only seen it once it's interesting to read his take after a second viewing. Perhaps it will not resonate as strongly as I suspected it would upon reapeat viewings.

Also I will admit I have something of a visual fetish for lighthouses, there is something so captivating to me about am mysterious lighthouse set against a brooding, ominous atmosphere. No doubt this gave it some extra cred in my book, heh.

John said...

Really enjoyed your review Ed. Yes it is an old style 'B' Movie with a modern day 'A' budget but it works. It is not a major Scorsese film but it is certainly entertaining and you get your thrills. I think Scorsese was having fun making a film with bits of Hitchcock, 1940's horror and other works from his youth. Excellent points on the use of music as Sam points out.

Ed Howard said...

Carson, I agree with you that the flashback to Teddy's tragedy is indeed affecting. It's a very harrowing sequence, even for someone who pretty much saw it coming. The last line adds an interesting wrinkle as well: is Teddy/Andrew willingly pretending to be crazy to get his memory wiped, or is he truly regressing? Personally, I don't think that's much of a mystery, as it was kind of obvious to me that he's choosing the lobotomy rather than live with the knowledge of what happened. But it's certainly a more interesting twist than the earlier one.

David, I'm somewhere between you and the film's defenders, but I do agree with you (and John) that this a minor Scorsese.

Drew, I'm glad so many people got so much out of this film, I'm enjoying reading people's varying reactions. For me, I loved much of the film so much that I really wanted it to end up somewhere worthy of those stunning visuals.

John, "an old style 'B' Movie with a modern day 'A' budget" is a great way to describe this film. Scorsese is definitely drawing on that tradition, and mingling it with the more grandiose aesthetic of Powell/Pressburger, etc. It works, visually speaking at least, but I'm not sure it's a lasting, substantial work and it doesn't really hold together once it's played its hand.

Pieter den Hollander said...

What do you think of the last shot of the lighthouse? Teddy isn't lobotomized there.

For me it is a warning I guess, as it undermines our certainty about what happened. We can never be 100% sure.

About the music: maybe the misinterpretation of Mahler (who lost his daughter) as Wagner is a succinct summary of the whole story.

Gunther said...

I am not that bothered by the ending, although I and my friends knew the outcome at least one and a half hour before the actual ending. I have to agree to the talking heads though, it kinda gives off the feeling of a director explaining every plot detail so even the biggest idiot in the audience knows what's going on.
And although I like the B-Movie stylistics of Shutter Island I have to admit that the soundtrack was sometimes too heavy for its own good. When DiCaprio is at the front gates of the mental hospital the soundtrack is so over the top dark and loud that I thought 'Yeah, I get it. The island is evil. Can you turn off the music now? Thanks.'. Visually though the movie is great for the most parts. You could say it's a good execution of displaying our much beloved visual cliches piled on top of each other.

Ed Howard said...

Pieter, I think the last shot of the lighthouse is, as you say, a callback to the ambiguity from earlier in the film, sounding an ironic note that Teddy, who had been paranoid about experiments at the hospital in his fantasy, is going to get lobotomized, albeit more or less willingly, after all.

Gunther, I see what you mean about the music but that didn't bother me so much. The whole movie is so over-the-top that the bombast of the music fits in perfectly well. It's pure sturm-und-drang.

Joanna said...

The atmosphere is the key of the entire movie. The noir-movie light is plenty, the music is sisnister and the whole context of a tempesty island with a sanatorium for violent people is sinister too. The characters, the hysterical or suspiciously quiet patients, the disparitions and inconsecvences, the vigilent guards, the whole movie gives you an extremely srange feeling. It's like a pshychological disconfort that you can't get rid of, it's like a deja-vu right underneath the surface.