Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Shutter Island

Written at the time of the film's release....

"What's yer Next Move, Boss?"
"Tag! You're It!"

It is 1954, and out of the fog comes a ferry boat carrying two U.S. Marshals, heading for Shutter Island, where squats, in various stages of dis-repair, Ashecliffe, an asylum for the criminally insane. In the ferry's "head," sea-sick,* is Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), "the legend" as his partner from Seattle Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo, who has a rather thick Massachusetts accent for it) calls him. The two are investigating the disappearance from Ashecliffe of an inmate from Ward B, the women's section, and right from the get-go, the detectives are at a disadvantage in this environment.

Upon crossing the electrified fence, their weapons are confiscated by the institution guards, security being what it is. "What?" Teddy smirks at the guard "You act like insanity is catching." The guard only smirks back. That should have been his first clue.
The doctors (Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow) are helpful to a point, but then they become somewhat diffident and challenging, even obstructing, protective of their "advanced" techniques—"a moral fusion between law and order and clinical care." The missing woman, Rachel Solendo (Emily Mortimer), drowned her kids after her husband was killed during the Normandy invasion and has never acknowledged the act. But she somehow managed to escape from a cell, locked from the outside, and with a guard on duty. Investigating, Daniels finds a cryptic note "The Law of 4. Who is 67?"
But that's all surface. Daniels volunteered for this case because he wanted to get to Shutter Island for some personal business. He's still haunted by the death of his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), who died in a fire that was set by an insane fire-bug named Andrew Laeddis (Elias Koteas**), presently incarcerated in Ashecliffe's Ward C—for the most dangerous criminals. Daniels has done some investigating of the facility, and what he's turned up indicates that radical techniques, from experimental drugs to lobotomies, are being practiced, and as funds are being channeled there from the House Un-American Activities Committee, he thinks the government is working on a secret brainwashing program to infiltrate radicals as double agents. Teddy wants to blow the lid off the place.
That is, if Nature doesn't get the chance first. A hurricane is barrelling down on Shutter Island ("It's like Kansas out there!"), threatening to cut off power to the electrical systems keeping the prisoners locked up and backed off. If the power goes, there's no back-up generator to kick in.
All of this concerns his partner, Marshall Chuck Aule; Teddy's been doing all this investigating of Ashecliffe, the doctors are resisting co-operating, they have no guns, the facility controls the ferry that's their only way out, and there's a storm coming. They're stuck on an island with a bunch of crazy convicts and an administrative staff who doesn't like them much, and wouldn't mind if they just...oh, had an accident or something. And Teddy's starting to get sick—plagued by migraines that Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) diagnoses only too quickly with some handy aspirin nearby. Then, there's the German Doctor Naehring (Max von Sydow) who's the co-director of Ashcliffe and chief diagnostician. Teddy was one of the soldiers who liberated Dachau, so he's immediately suspicious of him. "Do you believe in God, Marshall?" Naehring challenges him. "Ever seen a death-camp, doctor?" Teddy sneers back.
There's a lot of story-point to juggle,*** but director Martin Scorsese focuses on the atmospherics, which is laid down with a heavy hand in the same manner as he directed Cape Fear. When it comes to working on genre features, Scorsese is never subtle, and the film is filled with dark spaces (with things that go KA-BOOM in the night), blinding lightning strikes, dripping facades and the most suggestive of dream-sequences. Before too much has happened, you begin to question everything you see, and at that point the director throws the continuity girl off the cliff and does whatever he wants, reality having little to do with the movie. The secret to this kind of film-making is keeping audiences guessing and Scorsese stretches it out as far as he can (to the point where some audience members will still be questioning it after they leave the theater).
Which is unfortunate. Because the most important thing about this movie (and story) is another of author Dennis Lehane's moral quagmires. That is what one should be discussing, as opposed to "What just happened?"
So, call this another in a series of "minor Scorsese films" (but not so minor that it might win a mercy "Best Picture" Oscar), and we hope (again) that we'll see another film from him with more substance than mere style. One wonders how much Scorsese is sacrificing by hitching his film-making wagon to star Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio is a bankable star so studios are only too happy to finance a Scorsese film starring him and this allows Scorsese to keep working in a youth-oriented market in the most profit-based center of film-making, Hollywood. But DiCaprio the baby-faced star (no matter how much he scowls) is the water to Scorsese's boiling oil. There is a sense, and it may only be mine, that DiCaprio is shoe-horned into Scorsese projects for which he is not suited, and perhaps the two should have a trial separation to see what kind of film the mature film-maker will produce without his too-young star. In the first part of his career, Scorsese's non-Robert De Niro films were Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and After Hours, two distinctive films that, even without the director's frequent collaborator, said something about our lives and times prismed through Scorsese's kinetic view-finder. After his tampered-with version of Gangs of New York, he has produced The Aviator, The Departed, and this film, all with DiCaprio, and they are films more like New York, New York, that accentuate style over substance. Great cinematic rides they may be, but they're flashes in a film-can, that leave you still hungry to see a great movie.

Post-script: I've changed my rating of "Shutter Island" to a matinee and I'm not so sure it is a minor Scorsese film, as it's stayed with me for more than a week, and the images and intricacies keep popping into my brain to slap me upside the head. "Missed it!" I think the "Dicaprio" element still brings the movie down a bit, but a second viewing of Shutter Island shows intricacies that in the first viewing one doesn't know they don't know. That's subtle film-making that doesn't wave red flags at the audience, and the film slots into Scorsese's body of work quite smoothly. Trouble is, I can't go into details about it, or I might spoil the movie for anybody else.

Well, we'll just leave that for a piece down the road.

* Teddy is another Mass. cop who has the shakes about water. In Jaws, Chief Brody's wife tries to be helpful: "There's a technical name for it..." "Drowning" is his quick reply.

** No, it's not Robert De Niro, although it looks like him in the trailer. It's Elias Koteas...with a really big scar.

*** The script is by Avatar adapter Laeta Kalogridis, who Lehane thought did a masterful job with a difficult assignment. It is.

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