Friday, February 19, 2010

Scorsese's Labyrinth: Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is less an adaptation of author Dennis Lehane’s mystery thriller than it is a virtual funhouse of the director’s favourite film noir tropes – only there’s no fun in it. As he did in his ridiculous re-make of Cape Fear (1991), Scorsese gets so absorbed invoking the work of various film stylists - including Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie (1943), Vincente Minnelli’s The Cobweb (1955), Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) - that he can’t find a style of his own to take us inside the drama. Working from a dense but convoluted script (by Laeta Kalogridis), Shutter Island is a cluttered labyrinth that begins as an ingenious detective story but slowly shifts into a psychological character study. However, Scorsese gets so jazzed on creating a surreal atmosphere, aided by the atonal sounds of Ligeti, Penderecki and John Adams, that he clouds the clarity of the story. If it wasn’t for the good work by many of the performers, desperately breathing life into their stock roles, the picture would sink under the weight of the director’s B-movie fetishes.

Set in 1954, Shutter Island tells the story of two newly partnered U.S. marshals, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), who take a ferry across the stormy waters of Boston Harbour to the Ashecliffe Asylum on Shutter Island. They've been assigned to find Rachel Solando, a female inmate who vanished from her cell without a trace. (Rachel was sent to the Island after murdering her three children and arranging them around the dinner table for her husband to find.) On this remote estate, they’re introduced to the chief physician, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), and his cohort, Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), who aid them in their investigation. But from the moment they arrive, while a hurricane brews menacingly outside, the disappearance doesn't add up and stormy memories are starting to cloud Teddy Daniels’ judgment. Daniels begins to suffer from blinding migraines brought on by visions of the trauma he experienced liberating Dachau with Allied Forces and   of the later death of his young wife (Michelle Williams). Before long, Daniels suspects that the asylum may be housing sinister experiments brought on by the Cold War paranoia of the ‘50s in which he himself may soon become a victim.

Although Shutter Island is full of portentous imagery, the dread it evokes is largely mechanical. In his early work, like Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976), Scorsese successfully dramatized psychological turmoil by going deep inside his protagonists’ unrest so that we fully experienced their distorted world view. In Shutter Island, Scorsese stays safely on the outside and portrays Daniels’ hall-of-mirrors world more like a series of abstractions. (His haunting hallucinations, meticulously shot by Robert Richardson, are as literally and dramatically inert as the ones in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.) If David Lynch and Neil Jordan find realism in the dreamscape of surrealism, Scorsese’s strengths (which he abandons here) are in uncovering surreal states in dramatic realism. Shutter Island might be about how we invent comfortable worlds to live in as a defense from memories and impulses too painful and too violent to acknowledge. But that’s also Scorsese’s dilemma here as a director: he creates a comfortable world out of effects from film history to avoid delving too deeply into the dramatic conflicts of his characters. As a director who once wrestled with violence, at times unflinchingly, Martin Scorsese is now taking refuge in formal technique.

Despite the deficiencies of Shutter Island, the actors keep grounding the story. Leonardo DiCaprio fits snugly into the broad fedora and long coat of past noirs, but he also manages – especially late in the picture – to create a searing, tragic portrait that cuts through the morass of the plot. Mark Ruffalo brings a calm, quiet presence to his supporting role that transcends the usual detective story clich├ęs. Emily Mortimer has a beauty of a cameo, too, as an inmate whose burst of anger sends shock waves through the lovely contours of her face; as does Patricia Clarkson, playing a former psychiatrist, whose calm paranoia tells Daniels something about the truth behind the possible horrors he’s beginning to unravel. Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow could both have floated off into hambone heaven, but unlike Jack Nicholson in Scorsese’s last movie, The Departed, they give measured and low-key performances.

A lot has been made over the years about Scorsese’s reverence for the movie past which is why many critics continue to call him a master. And in some of his best work, where he uncovered and revitalized a number of genre conventions, his unbridled love of film did make him a great artist. But in his last few movies – from Gangs of New York (2002) to Shutter Island – his passion has been replaced by an impersonal craftsmanship. He still knows how to make a movie but some of us are now left wondering why he’s making it. You could say that Martin Scorsese is currently on his own Shutter Island, a movie theme park, playing out his role as master and lost in the storm.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author of the forthcoming Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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