Monday, May 31, 2010

I gotta get off this rock, Chuck.

At first I thought I was putting off writing about Shutter Island because it's impossible to really discuss without talking about its ending (consider that a spoiler warning). But after a few weeks, I realized I've never written about Scorsese; I managed to sidestep in-depth responses to The Departed and Shine a Light when they were released, and I've never written a proper review of any of his previous films. Writing about Scorsese is daunting, not so much because he is possibly my favorite filmmaker - he, Kubrick and Lynch are constantly battling for the top spot - but because, as Godard said of Nicholas Ray, Scorsese is cinema.

This is not to say that Scorsese is beyond criticism, but each new film, good or bad, is the sum of not only every film he's made but possibly every film he's ever seen. Shutter Island evokes and sometimes directly acknowledges Hitchcock, Kubrick, Powell and Pressburger, Val Lewton, Mario Bava and others I'm sure I missed on one viewing. This isn't just homage, it's flat-out worship of the entire history of cinema even as he expands the language of filmmaking in ways big and small with each new movie. The problem, then, is where to begin - whether I start by connecting Shutter Island to to Scorsese's body of work, the ongoing tension between his American and European sensibilities, his Catholicism, his ongoing exploration of violence, or his continued collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio, I'm risking worse than finding I don't have Scorsese's breath support. At best I'm telling you what you already know; at worst I'm diagramming, grasping the words but missing the music, reducing Scorsese to a fucking mix tape. I'd better have something to say, in other words, and as there is no clear starting point, let's start at the ending.

More than any of the other filmmakers I mentioned before, Shutter Island explicitly quotes Kubrick and specifically The Shining, complete with Penderecki on the soundtrack and a cameo by the Grady twins (triplets here). Kubrick's film is an important reference point in understanding Scorsese's intentions here, beyond the surface similarities of two films set in creepy, isolated locations. Since The Shining's release, the most common criticism of the film is that it is obvious from the beginning that Jack Torrance is crazy, which deprives the film of any suspense. For fans of The Shining, however, it is Kubrick's decision to foreground his character's psychological instability that is the source of the film's almost unbearable tension - as Scorsese commented, "It's holding back this extraordinary, emotional, powerful dramatic punchline. You know it's going to come somehow, at some time, and it just creates such suspense." Similarly, Shutter Island has been partly criticized for the predictability of a "twist" that I don't think is meant to be a twist - it's obvious early on that the protagonist, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), is insane. This will be obvious to anyone with a basic recognition of film language from the first scene; as Teddy and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) approach the titular island by ferry, the blatant rear projection of the backgrounds signals a level of unreality reminiscent of Hitchcock's use of the technique (which, in his later films, was on the verge of anachronistic even 40 years ago). Scorsese has always embraced a tension between realism and cinematic artifice; with Shutter Island, he emphasizes the medium's unreality to clue us in, early on, that we cannot trust what we are seeing.

Teddy and Chuck are headed to Ashecliff, a hospital for the criminally insane located on the island, to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), a patient hospitalized after drowning her children. As Teddy interviews the hospital staff, including compassionate head psychiatrist Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and his more pragmatic colleague Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sydow), Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker employ deliberate continuity errors and off-balance editing rhythms to subtly disorient us. By the time Teddy confides his real motives for taking the case to Chuck, it's clear that we cannot take Teddy or his investigation at face value - the mystery Scorsese withholds is why an insane man is being given free reign of the asylum. DiCaprio is excellent as the tormented, justice-seeking Daniels, but the supporting performances are perhaps more important, as much of the film's success depends on the sustained feeling that everyone around Teddy knows something he doesn't (Ruffalo is particularly wonderful, playing the second banana role on the surface while revealing subtle hints of the compassion he feels for his "partner"). Few films have evoked the perspective of a deeply paranoid man as effectively; each scene of Teddy's investigation plays well as either a literal manifestation of the mystery unfolding in Teddy's head or, upon reflection, as the elaborate role-playing game it actually is. This is complimented marvellously by Dante Ferretti's production design, a neverending labyrinth of corridors, spirals and shadows that manifest Teddy's search for the truth just out of his grasp.

Though Shutter Island is, quite deliberately, one of Scorsese's pulpier efforts, it continues his ongoing investigation into the nature of violence. Teddy is a war hero, and his memories of the liberation of Dachau are borne directly out of a '50s pulp magazine - however, these sequences are marked by historical inaccuracies that suggest they may be a part of Teddy's delusion (I must admit I would have missed this were it not for Glenn Kenny's response to complaints from Bernard Henri-Levy). Characters throughout the film ruminate on the nature of violence with varying degrees of success (I found the dialogue between Teddy and a guard played by Ted Levine* a bit too on-the-nose). The film's strongest impact comes when we see the reality Teddy has buried. The film has some stunningly stylized moments, including the gorgeous dream sequences involving his dead wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) and the unforgettable shot of rats swarming a cliffside; however, when we see what Dolores did in the Berkshires, the scene is shot flatly, from a distance. It's one of the most chilling cinematic examples of the banality of evil, a horror born out of good intentions and human frailty.

This is not to overlook the awkwardness of the film's denoument - I must admit that I was a bit disappointed that the film's reveal requires Ben Kingsley pointing at anagrams on a whiteboard. I want to say that Scorsese elevates the material (Laeta Kalogridis is no Paul Schrader), but part of the reason the film works is that he never condescends to the B-movie origins of Lehane's novel. Shutter Island is a master chef making cheeseburgers and clearly having a lot of fun doing it; it's entertaining as hell, and yet it clearly merits discussion alongside his more "serious" efforts (to Scorsese's credit, I don't think he makes this distinction with his work). Teddy, like almost every Scorsese protagonist from Travis Bickle to Rupert Pupkin to Jesus Christ, is another incarnation of "God's lonely man," obsessives driven to repeat their psychic traumas over and over. As Kenny pointed out, "Even more than Raging Bull, Shutter Island can be read as a feature-length remake of Scorsese's harrowing 1969 short The Big Shave: it's a chronicle of a man who simply cannot stop hurting himself, cutting himself open." For this reason, the film lingered in my memory long after the closing credits (with their haunting mash-up of Dinah Washington and Max Richter). While hopefully none of us will ever be in Teddy's position, I'm sure many of us have risked destruction trying to solve an unsolvable problem; it's often our desire to be heroic that brings out our monsters. Why are you all wet, baby?