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Review: "Shutter Island" (Martin Scorsese, USA)

As with The Departed, a picture looking ever more prescient and clunkily masterful as time goes on, wherever you try to place Shutter Island, it won't fit.  Like Tarantino after him—or perhaps startlingly more accurately, before him­—Scorsese utilizes his audience's awareness of cinematic conventions to shorthand his way through a film, slipping past and through the details of mystery, shock, horror, and psychoanalysis for something at once more specific—in that it's so cinematically tuned by the filmmaker, the references so exact—and in actual fact, far more broad.  Inglourious Basterds did away with the Second World War for the ins-and-outs of dialog and conversational editing as politics and as morality.  Shutter Island is less abstract, and is in fact more geeky than the Tarantino, trying to outsmart yet at the same time be that glorious Fuller-Powell/Pressburger-Ray mashup that never was.  It is a shotgun, going for scattershot gestalt, enabled by old school psycho-cinema rather than held back by outdated traumas.  The closest comparison not so much in filmmaking as in effect and attitude may be the Hitchcock of Spellbound and Marnie, films so superficially reliant on final explanations that a casual viewing can lead one to forget the two hours of cinema that happened before those two hours get explained away.


Leonardo DiCaprio—who else?—all furrowed brows (migraines) and disbelieving anguish (WWII trauma) comes to an experimental psychiatric asylum on an isolated island; by the end of the first reel we learn his wife has been killed and he helped liberate Dachau.  Why is it only genre cinema seems adequately equipped to deal with the Second World War?  Maybe because moral pretense is kept to a minimum, grand statements are few, and the films have the humility to represent atrocity and trauma as something on the level of the flawed individual.  From that flawed individual we discover Shutter Island, all sectioned-off buildings and filmic set pieces, dreams of wives and the past from this distinctly un-oneiric filmmaker, a hodgepodge of an island asylum, one less perhaps of the mind than of the cinema.  To envision both the island and DiCaprio's visions, Scorsese works with his most digital effects to date, effects to create a space between unreality and reality, the space where genre resides.


This is the space where Scotty lives in Vertigo.  Or Victoria Page in The Red Shoes, Mark McPherson in Laura, Oliver Davis in Isle of the Dead—all undercurrents I have no doubt Scorsese is aware of.  But the references are less the point than is the strategy of Shutter Island—that the most canny and resourceful approach to trauma and anguish, to romanticism and self-doubt, to fictions of the mind and the horrors of reality, is indeed the stylizations and conventions of genre.   Where the audience feels safe in a false space, and approaches within touching distance the real thing.  It's where Kubrick "hides" domestic abuse, alcoholism, and genocide in The Shining, or Ray eats away at the American family in Bigger Than Life.

At least, that's where 20th century filmmakers have best addressed 20th century concerns.  Shutter Island is a defiantly 20th century movie, all Freud, Holocaust, and Government by way of the B film.  Yet forgetting even its length and its stars, the film lacks the luridness to be a B—see the Cape Fear remake for how a lurid attitude can twist and warp a mainstream picture into the B ethos.  But Shutter Island and The Departed have one B-thing in common: call it asinuousness, a clunkiness that belays Scrosese's fluid camerawork, rich sets.  Transitions and segues, editing between and within scenes, all are, as my colleague Glenn Kenny precisely describes, "knotty;" gone are the montage-slick glossy days of Goodfellas, Casino.  We're operating in a world here, here and in Gangs of New York too, in a world that doesn't make that much sense; from the 21st century we look back and see the 20th cinematically constructed as such, a puzzle of assembling American history, past and present, where most of pieces don't fit properly. Scorsese has always been an expressionist filmmaker, but only with his last few pictures has the overall construction of his movies seemed like the awkwardly organic outgrowths of the film worlds, or, in Shutter Island's case, an outgrowth of it's protagonist.

If it sounds like I'm talking around the film a lot, it's because honestly I don't know where Martin Scorsese is any more.  He isn't here right now, that's for sure.  I lost him some time after Bringing Out the Dead, or maybe The Aviator—the end of his 1990s run of glossy-slick motion machines.  Ever since, his fictional features have been blocky, chunky, tactile...forceful, assertive, oddly stylized, even unstylized, or at least inconsistently so. Nearest I can pinpoint, the filmmaker is lurking somewhere between 1954 and 1962, making studio movies with the new adult seriousness of the end of the studio era but passionately attached to the genre codes the studios, then, thought were safe bets.  (A place now seen as respites for great artists, Fuller, Tourneur, Sirk, etc.)  There is something for-hire about these pictures, even dream-picture Gangs of New York, fiery gestures in standard arrangements, a love of bounded actors (no De Niro risks in this era, excepting the great live-action cartoon performance of all time, Daniel Day-Lewis's Bill the Butcher; instead we get DiCaprio, contained in a working class bite-back variation of the angry clodhead that Matt Damon plays as entitled professional), a lot of sets, more "sets" than you ever see in pictures any more.  You can't call them genre exercises or B-pictures, not for their 2 hour plus run time, big name actors, moral awareness.  (Moral seriousness came with the great directors of small pictures starting in the 40s, but it wasn't until the 1950s' adult cinema that it became widespread and mainstream for movies to be so self-conscious of their own seriousness, and placate the audience with it.)  Yet despite their awkward heft, these new Scorsese pictures are small movies run on big ideas, big ideas that expand the films—and, increasing, the films' form—to sprawingly, lurching degrees, that are just barely keep going, kept impassioned by the anguish at their cores.

Scorsese’s invocation of madness in Shutter Island is as satisfying as anything he’s filmed in twenty years. The Departed was a good time too, and so was Casino, but neither did much to grow the director beyond the walls of his comfort zone. Shutter Island, on the other hand, pushes our conception of Scorsese to the brink. It tests him, and he comes out the cleverer for it, proving that he has what it takes to navigate through the film’s several timeframes and planes of consciousness both the old fashioned way – with a system of symbols triggering the narrative from one association to the next – just as he and his editor, the amazing Thelma Schoonmacher, shuffle us through a trick deck of visual sleights of hand. Like something out of Vertigo, disorienting shifts between points of view – shots that begin (it seems) from one perspective and end up (it seems) from another – evoke the kind of psychological rupture lesser directors would fob off with cosmetic gimmicks, nutty angles, and (God help us) the standard hand-held effect (scary!).
“Uh, Mr. Scorsese, the screenwriter of the Cusack-vehicle IDENTITY is on the phone. He wants his movie back.”
Raysquirrel in the forum reminded me of a fantastic detail that I’d forgotten really since the moment of noticing it while watching SHUTTER ISLAND: one character is handed a glass of water in one shot. When it’s lifted to the character’s lips for a sip in a short take, no cup, just empty hands, and then the cup is put down in the next shot. Ghostly, invisible, non-existent. So blatantly a statement about the film’s unstable universe that it should be laughable but for the fact that it’s so effortlessly incorporated into slick, perfected Hollywood montage rhythms that it becomes essentially subliminal. This was the only example this interesting that I noticed while watching…so in that case, what else did I MISS?

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