February 25, 2010

"You act like insanity is catching": Shutter Island

More than a few critics have complained that in Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese's brilliant technique is in the service of a ludicrous storyline, as though a "gotcha!'' horror yarn is beneath such a great artist. Graeme Tuckett on National Radio went as far as to call it Scorsese's "bad film'', which is of course a big call (personally I'd opt, if I had to, for Bringing Out the Dead, Cape Fear and Casino as the times when his signature embellishment of pulp became overwrought and overheated, although none of them deserves to be called "bad''). But for the most part, this kind of thing has been the Scorsese project all along: the boilerplate storylines of the mass-produced and often forgettable studio pictures that he found running in fleapits in the 50s and 60s -- these vivid autobiographical details courtesy, of course, of A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies -- elevated via his rich cinematic artistry (and not just his but editor Thelma Schoonmaker and cinematographer Robert Richardson, who are both at the top of their game in the beautifully-textured Shutter Island) and a sense of personal, probably specifically Catholic torment. But the material? They have been the gangster movie, the boxing biopic, the crucifixion epic, the musical, the western (Gangs of New York, his "western on mars'') and, just to move us from the 50s into the present, our closest thing to a B-movie descendant: the hyper-violent Hong Kong cop movie (The Departed). Apart from The Age of Innocence and maybe Kundun, the storylines themselves have never been about higher things.

In the 50s-set Shutter Island, Scorsese is the Personal Journey film historian at play, getting Hitchcock in there, and Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur, and Powell and Pressburger, and more besides, even throwing in some obvious rear projection -- in the opening scene -- but to do more than just pay homage to the era; it makes a story point that pays off later. The horror is both traditional -- rats, castles, a graveyard, the darkest and stormiest of dark and stormy nights -- and psychological, as in hallucinations, dreams and flashbacks, repression and suppression. Some of the latter stuff might put you in mind of Vertigo -- although it's not that good, that uncanny, that unforgettable -- and, appropriate to the times, the heavyweight noir-era fears that slosh around in the head of our hero (Leonardo DiCaprio) include Nazi death camps and doctors, H-bombs and Korean War brainwashing (noir subtexts becoming visible). But that's all horror business -- does it add up to anything serious? I think so: Shutter Island seems to have more genuine emotional weight than Scorsese's three earlier films with DiCaprio, which is partly to do with where the material eventually takes us -- where it also crosses over with Vertigo is in a depiction of loss -- and partly to do with the maturing of this actor-director relationship, with DiCaprio now Scorsese's reliable subject and muse. Glenn Kenny has even made a persuasive case for it being a personal film (see this response too, from Jim Emerson) and the ending seemed to me to depend on an important moral or philosophical choice that almost runs like a Paul Schrader moment. And when you're done thinking about that, consider what the moment says about the German officer's suicide earlier.
PICTURE: Arnold Bocklin's "Isle of the Dead'' (1883), a direct influence on the 1940s Val Lewton/Mark Robson film of the same name. Last year, Scorsese named Isle of the Dead as one of his 11 (why 11?) scariest horror movies of all time.