Friday, December 13, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.24: Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Because I try to go in-depth in these entries, there’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 86/A-

I just found that over the years… the films that I constantly revisited, or saw repeatedly, held up longer for me… not because of plot, but because of character and a very different approach to story.”

Martin Scorsese said that in an interview with Jon Favreau, but he’s mentioned many times over the years that he’s less interested in plot (the stuff that happens) and more in story (what it's actually about). It’s through that lens that one should view Shutter Island. The film, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, has a patently absurd plot, and several of the film’s fiercest critics have knocked the way the film ultimately unfolds. But that ignores how vibrant the style of Shutter Island is, and what Scorsese’s approach to character says about the era in which it takes place.

1954: U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is on the way to Shutter Island, a maximum security mental facility for the criminally insane, with his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). Teddy’s investigating the disappearance of Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), a mentally ill woman who drowned her three children, but he finds lead psychiatrist Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley) is hiding something. Teddy confides to Chuck that he’s heard about illicit medical and psychological experiments on the patients at Shutter Island, but as he starts cracking up and having flashbacks to his experience liberating Dachau or to the death of his wife (Michelle Williams) in a fire, it becomes more difficult to sort out what’s real and what’s not.

Shutter Island creates a mood of disquiet from its opening credits, as Györgi Ligeti’s “Lontano” plays, deliberately recalling Kubrick’s The Shining. It’s the only piece of music the two films share in common, but Scorsese uses classical music in the same way that Kubrick does to sustain a mood of mounting dread. Whether he’s using Penderecki’s “Passacaglia” to DiCaprio’s approach to the mental facility or John Cage’s atonal “Root of an Unfocus” during one of the film’s outlandish dream sequences, there’s always something slightly (or more than slightly) off keel.

Kubrick’s not the only master Scorsese pays homage to. Shutter Island sees Scorsese blending his most formalistic influences together, from Hitchcock’s masterful use of limited perspective to the florid surrealism and sense of doom of Michael Powell to the lurid use of mood and color in the style of Mario Bava and Jacques Tourneur. The set-up of Shutter Island (guy goes into mental facility to get scoop, finds himself lost/signs of horror of the era) is strikingly similar to Sam Fuller’s masterpiece Shock Corridor, while the sense of a world without order (not to mention the payoff) is straight out of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Scorsese even cited the influence of new Asian cinema, particularly of Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, for the grand sense of tragedy that he mixes in with the horror. This might have started out as a work-for-hire film (Scorsese hinted that he initially tried to get out of it in recent interviews), but the director takes the pulpy material as an excuse to take a page from the great horror and thriller directors and take us straight into nightmare territory.

And what a nightmare it is.  Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson have played with high contrast between brightness and darkness before, but never quite to this degree. The brightness of the lights beat down on Teddy’s psyche to the point of migraines, while one scene where Teddy has to light his way with a series of matches puts a similar scene in James Wan’s overrated The Conjuring to shame (guys, this is atmospheric). What’s more, every dolly around a corner or an object (I’m thinking of a pan around a chair to see Max von Sydow’s sinister doctor in particular) only further heightens the anticipatory terror of even the most mundane situation. And then there’s the film’s gorgeous, Technicolor-style visual palette, which only further gives a sense that we’re removed from reality.

Scorsese’s editor Thelma Schoonmaker also gets a chance to mess with the audience’s sense of calm. A couple of deliberate continuity breaks (a reappearing glass of water, a jump cut in a cell) are some of the most immediately recognizable, a quick but effective way to give a “what the hell?” feeling. But I’m more knocked out by the dream sequence that blends together Teddy’s experiences in the war and death with the missing Rachel Solondo, in which Schoonmaker cuts to the rhythm of the music (PIANO NOTE to DiCaprio’s haunted face, drum to a pile of dead bodies) or plays with slow motion and reversed shots to give the scene an unnerving fever dream quality.

Scorsese has always been good with actors, but Shutter Island is particularly fun for how many great character actors show up for just a scene or two: Elias Koteas as a horrifically scarred patient with a history with Teddy; Patricia Clarkson as a paranoid doctor; Jackie Earle Haley as a patient with some information about both the facility and Teddy; Max von Sydow as a doctor who’s less humane than his colleague Kingsley; and a creepy Ted Levine as a warden with theories about violence in men. The larger supporting roles are great, too: Kingsley walks a delicate balance between beneficence and chilliness, while Williams’s haunting appearances in dream sequences hint at something very wrong beneath Teddy’s idealization of her. Ruffalo’s work might be the canniest as a character who feels strangely out of place before the pieces fall into place and we learn that he’s not all that he seems.

Teddy, meanwhile, is part of the long run of tortured characters DiCaprio specialized in in the mid-2000s and early 2010s. It’s a slight variation on his terrific work in The Departed: where Billy Costigan was someone trying like hell to hide that he was coming apart at the seams, Teddy’s in bad shape from the very beginning, first introduced trying to pull himself together in front of a mirror. Teddy enters the facility with a sense of bravado that can’t quite hide how uneasy he is and a sense of control that he doesn’t really have. And DiCaprio handles Teddy’s escalating paranoia beautifully, going from understandable frustration to quick-fire temper and distrust of everything around him to the point where  the character’s deterioration feels like the character’s wearing himself down as much as the elements are.

What’s fascinating about Shutter Island’s story (as opposed to its plot) is how Scorsese roots the free-floating paranoia and trauma of the era in the middle of a nerve-jangling psychological horror movie. Some of the paranoid bits come from off-handed comments about the hydrogen bomb, while others come directly from Teddy’s fear that experimental psychology could very well be about control rather than healing. The mentions of HUAC and communists used as test subjects aren’t just period window dressing – they’re there to inform how we view Teddy’s paranoia and uncertainty, and they hearken directly back to 50s genre films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Manchurian Candidate.

At the same time, we’re meant to doubt whether or not we can trust Teddy’s point of view. Every step of the way, Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis set up a new bit of Teddy’s backstory: he’s seen something like the electrified perimeter before, he’s quit drinking, he distrusts von Sydow’s German doctor before he’s even spoken with him at length, he has a special hatred for a patient who harmed an innocent woman. Without putting too fine a point on it until we need to know exactly what’s going on, we get the message that Teddy buried his war experiences in drink and likely took it out on his wife, and that he’s wracked with guilt and self-hatred.

Eventually we do figure out what’s going on: Teddy is really Andrew Laeddis, the man he claimed was responsible for his wife’s death, and he’s a patient who shot his manic depressive wife after she murdered their three children (who he’s seen in his dreams as the victims of Rachel Solando). On top of that, Ruffalo, who seemed off as a marshal, is actually one of Andrew’s doctors. Admittedly, it’s not handled in the most elegant way. It’s easy enough for me to overlook the questionable logic of whether or not Dr. Cawley would really put everyone at risk for one particularly dangerous patient to work out his problems – Hitchcock movies frequently operate on questionable logic in terms of plot, but justify in in terms of story. The problem is more that it turns into an exposition dump that dots every I and crosses every T, and while it’s well-staged by Scorsese, it can’t help but feel less thrilling than what’s come before.

But that’s a minor quibble when one looks at what it reveals about the character. Scorsese’s films frequently deal in guilt and self-loathing, and Shutter Island’s final act reveals just how deep those feelings are in DiCaprio’s character, who reimagines “Laeddis” as a monster and himself as a hero who’s sick of violence in order to escape his past. It’s not unlike what the Coens do in The Man Who Wasn’t There, where paranoia about flying saucers is used as a way to escape more personal feelings of alienation. Here, paranoia about government experiments and mind control tower over as distractions from more personal, destructive problems: alcoholism, PTSD, demonization of mental illness, and, in Andrew’s case, the horrible guilt over its fallout.

Shutter Island came out the same year as another DiCaprio film, Inception, which saw people debating over the ambiguity of the ending (did the top fall over or not?), focusing on the plot while overlooking what that Lady or Tiger ending says about the character and the story: that whatever the result is, it doesn’t matter, because DiCaprio has chosen to accept whatever he’s in now as reality. Similarly, Shutter Island fell into similar debate about the plot (namely, whether it was too ludicrous or not) while ignoring what the events said about the character, a man who tried to escape reality to escape guilt over his sins.  That heartbreaking final scene clinches it: it doesn’t matter what the truth is. Andrew would rather feign a return to insanity and be lobotomized than live with what he’s done. “Which would be worse – to live as a monster, or die as a good man?”

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