Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Shutter Island" an exhilarating game

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Martin Scorsese has dipped through his pool of cinematic knowledge, carefully stirring up gentle waves in the tide pool. The result is another grand postmodern exercise in the vein of his overwhelmingly underrated "Cape Fear," a psychological jolt that stirs through its stylistic excess. It may as well be Scorsese's "The Shining," a trip to through the spookhouse that ends up projecting ghosts inward instead of outward.

Obligatory plot summary: Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Teddy Daniels, a Federal Marshall investigating the disappearance of a female patient on Shutter Island, which houses an institution for the criminally insane. Teddy's also harboring some guilt and hallucinations directly tied to violent events in his past that start to overwhelm him during his brief stay as he tries to unravel the mystery.

"Shutter Island" may be an elaborate tribute to Val Lewton and the spookhouse movies of the 1950s, but it has much deeper concerns about surviving and writing history on its mind. Part of what makes it such a compelling, interesting film is that it winds through the whole spool of 1950s paranoia - in the course of his investigation, Teddy firmly believes he's on the verge of uncovering a conspiracy involving Communists, Nazis, control of the hydrogen bomb, and maybe a little bit of lobotomy. Crazy stuff, but in the vein of Lewton, Aldrich, Siegel, et al, Scorsese uses these high-wired concepts as room to delve into greater problems with the national mindset.

Teddy also happens to be persistently crippled by two visions: one is of executing Nazi officials at Dachau prison at the end of World War II, the other is of his wife's tragic death in an apartment fire. The best and most thrilling parts of "Shutter Island" are a series of extended, astonishing dream sequences wherein Teddy confronts these spirits that haunt him. True to form, these are some of the most purely cinematic moments Scorsese has shot in his last several films, smoothly arcing up a level of abstraction until Teddy's separate guilt become fused into disturbing violent images.

Working again with longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker and accompanied by cinematographer Robert Richardson, "Shutter Island" is all about getting us off edge and getting us to identify with Teddy. The editing has his typical verve, with a couple of great moments that seem to swerve in and out of the film's coherent reality, but in each sequence the master seems firmly in control of the game he's trying to play. And yes, "Shutter Island" is a game. It's filled with daring geometry and lighting, gothic setting, loads of classy exposition, and a mystery that makes less sense before it makes more. But as with all Scorsese movies, the plot really isn't what it's about, it's just a way of getting to what it's all about, so maybe I should address what I've already heard some professionals use as a criticism, but which I see as a strength.

The ending. Yes, it's a twist. A pretty big one. I won't give it away, but I've heard a few people lament that it doesn't satisfy, it's too obvious, not original enough, etc. I don't think it matters, because what Scorsese has managed to do is go back into the 1950s and ferret around in one of his favorite places with his new favorite leading man. Like "The Shining," "Shutter Island" is concerned with how history gets written, how the past intrudes in the present, and how we all get overrun by our duality and our trauma.

And Scorsese's movies have always been about how violent men deal with their surroundings. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellas, The King of Comedy - all of them are about people who can't function in terms of how their respective societies deem they should, who must reconcile a rupture or suffer in their violence. So too is Teddy Daniels, a man who must solve the case of the missing woman if he is to find any solidarity with the violence that plagues his past.

Yes, DiCaprio continues to emerge as one of the most gifted actors of this generation, a veritable machine of range that can go from a caricature of a 50s detective one minute to a man of searing angst the next. His work with Scorsese is so married, so controlled and so coiled, it lends the project a whole extra level of intensity that keeps it very much grounded when it threatens to spiral into Scorsese's tricks.

I realize it's hard for me to really talk about "Shutter Island" without giving away what it's all really about, but I admire it in a way I don't think most people are giving it credit for. It's not about tricking us, creeping us out, or paying homage to Val Lewton. It's about giving a different treatise to what Val Lewton and his ilk were going after. Many of Scorsese's films have ventured back into different eras of culture and of filmmaking (sometimes in an overlapping way) not to necessarily reach any greater truth, but to apply what he wants to discuss to what he admires. Ditto "Shutter Island."

It has all the penchants of a great Scorsese film - the aforementioned editing, the elaborate screenplay that is about so much and yet nothing at all, tremendous acting, a musical score ripped from a dozen sources and yet all sounding of a piece, a larger commentary on culture. Yet this time he's daring to go into psychology, a move he hasn't really made since Cape Fear or King of Comedy. It's a movie about trauma, and more specifically the trauma America faced at the end of World War II.

All the historical/cultural references aren't just a passing thing; Shutter Island is implicitly about the break we faced when we learned about the Holocaust, the depths we took to create unity as a nation even as we suffered from Communist paranoia. Yes, Teddy's hallucinatory condition is one of America, a nation trying to overcome its broader implications in violent acts even as it wants to believe it can do good. By doing that good, finding that woman, we can "restore ourselves."

"Shutter Island" is a great film, and one worthy of discussion not only for its technical marvel, and especially not because it has a neat trick ending. That ending says something deeper about America in the 1950s, and to what end Scorsese wants to create that conversation is something to be talked about over coffee. I can't say I've figured it out myself, but I'll concede he caught me under a conspiratory spell.

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