Friday, 2 April 2010

A Trip to and on Shutter Island

Shutter Island 2010 US
Directed by Martin Scorcese
Screening at Cineworld

Shutter Island Soundtrack by Various Artists 2010 Rhino 8122798319

Warning! This contains spoilers for those who haven’t seen the trailer and figured out the twists from that!

Martin Scorcese used to be a pretty good director. No... let me modify that if I may. Martin Scorcese used to be one of the all time great directors.

Some of the great American masterpieces of cinema came to us from this guy! This is the man, let's not forget, who gave us Who’s That Knocking at my Door?, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and The King of Comedy. Not to mention quirky little dessert courses like It’s not just you, Murray and The Big Shave.

But then he started making disappointing movies like Goodfellas... which was technically brilliant but just an astonishingly boring choice of subject matter for this particular viewer. And then I just lost interest.

Yes, okay he made the odd little stab of genius again with films like Kundun (which was all about the Glass!) and The Aviator but mostly his films have held no real interest for me since those early days of absolute genius.

But every now and again he makes a movie that reminds us just how great he was/is... and his new release, Shutter Island, is just such a movie.

The set up to the film is almost as old as film itself. Two US Marshalls are called in to a maximum security mental hospital after on of the patients has escaped.

Yeah, ok, sure! He really telegraphs the so-called twists to you within the first 20 minutes of the film. There’s some very overwrought stuff where the identity of the “missing doctor” is pretty much lit up in red neon on the screen when the camera keeps jump cutting to the doctor in question to catch his reactions so that when you go back to see it a second time you will, presumably, say to yourself... “Oh... thats why they kept cutting back to that character when the patients were being interviewed!”... except it’s just a little bit unsubtle and so you tend to see it coming a couple of hours before you’re supposed to.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter... and quite honestly, anybody who has even seen the trailer once will have figured out that there’s only two possible routes that this film can go down... and both have been done to death a number of times. There’s the “the lunatics have taken over the asylum” approach... popularised by such iconic confections of pop culture as the 1966 Star Trek episode “Dagger of the Mind” or there’s the other obvious route of... “the lunatic is still in the asylum and it’s you and you’ve really been in it for quite a while now” approach... used in the framing story of Robert Wiene’s 1920s masterpiece of German Expressionism “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari” but perhaps made more specific and mixed into the foreground of the 1962 Roger Kay reimagining “The Cabinet of Caligari” (and reimagining is right). I’m not going to spoil it for you and tell you which of the two routes Scorcese takes with this movie... but it won’t take you very long into the film to figure it out. Especially with protracted clues early on in the movie such as one of the US Marshall’s fumbling with how to get his pistol and holster from his belt.

But as I said before... this doesn’t matter.

A few years ago, Scorcese did a short advertising film for freixenet called The Key To Reserva. It’s his hommage to Alfred Hitchcock and, quite frankly, it’s a brilliant piece of movie making. This short film in its entirety can be seen here...

... and frankly, it’s well worth clicking on for any fan of good moviemaking. Starting in a documentary style with a humorous interview with Scorcese about the film... the film then starts and it’s a beautiful summation of Hitchcock. Scored, quite literally as you’ll see as it’s presented in the context of the short, with a part of Herrmann’s score from North By Northwest, the short hits so many Hitch moments and fans of the work of the Master of Suspense (or maybe I should refer to him as the American Argento ;-) will want to stay on to the end of the short with that brilliant pull back shot from the Scorcese epilogue.

Anyway, the reason I’ve mentioned this is because... if The Key to Reserva is Scorcese’s homage to Hitchcock in the medium of the short, advertising film... Shutter Island is very much his homage to Hitchcock in a feature film. It has to be said that some critics have likened Shutter Island to those early RKO horror pictures produced by Val Lewton (a series of films which I like very much) and... maybe at a stretch in terms of the subject matter (although this movie is based on a novel)... but no I disagree... this film is definitely Scorcese doing Hitchcock. It’s uncanny and it’s the sheer beauty of this postmodern filtration that makes the movie so eminently watchable.

The angles he’s chosen. The colours and framing choices he’s made. All of it pure Hitchcock. Here’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s head filling the screen up at the start of one of his many nightmare sequences in a direct echo of Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo. There’s Leonardo DiCaprio climbing the sheer cliff face as Cary Grant clambered about Mount Rushmore in North By Northwest. Here’s the famous full on shot of the showerhead filling camera as it did in Psycho. Back to Vertigo again and here’s Leonardo running up and up the spiral staircase in the lighthouse and taking stops on the way up just as Stewart did running up the stairs of the bell tower... I’m surprised Scorcese resisted the urge to track in some of Hermmann’s much loved score at this point. Like Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds... Shutter Island is very much a film for fans of the art of film itself.

Then, too, there are the performances.

Scorcese has assembled a quite amazing cast of very strong actors and actresses with which to populate his film. The only one I don’t really know is DiCaprio since I’ve only ever seen him in two other movies... he’s passable enough and he certainly doesn’t let any of the other actors down. But those other actors... you’ve got Mark Ruffalo (one of my favourite modern actors), Ben Kingsley, Elias Koteas, Jackie Earle Haley (Rorschach himself!) and the one and only Patricia Clarkson. Plus... you have the inimitable Max Von Sydow playing a classic Hitchcockian psychiatrist but with a look by way of Edward Van Sloan’s memorable portrayal of Van Helsing from Dracula (1931) and Dracula’s Daughter (1936). Absolutely brilliant.

I mentioned there are a lot of nightmare sequences in this movie... perhaps a more accurate description would be to say that the movie has a very hallucinogenic feel to it. This doesn’t give anything away as the film is quite blatant in it’s explorations of the fragility and contradictory nature of reality from a very early point in the telling of the tale.

And as brilliant as the film is in the sense of being a visual feast... the score is an absolute foreboding presence, reflecting and shadowing the disturbing nature of the subject matter in hand. I scanned the credits for the composer but there was none readily forthcoming. That’s because Scorcese has used, to quote the sticker on the excellent double album release of the score, lots of different examples of “modern classical compositions” to “mood out” his atmosphere... and it’s properly mixed into the foreground of the film like... well, like Hitchcock might have done with his Herrmann scores. You know the drill by now... a smattering of John Cage... a sprinkling of Alfred Schnittke... and of course those two powerful crutches of all scare-the-pants-off-you directors (such as William Friedkin and Stanley Kubrik for The Exorcist and The Shining respectively), Gy├Ârgy Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki.

There’s some amazing, deeply disturbing music to be found on the Shutter Island soundtrack... and consequently the resulting soundtrack album (which I’m listening to as I write... urm... blog this) is a great sampler for people who are somehow unfamiliar with this kind of challenging but satisfying kind of disharmony.

Shutter Island, then, is a veritable three course meal for the eyes and the ears. Despite it’s lack of surprise and revelation.

I guess what you really have to ask yourself at the end of the day though is this... Which would be worse... to live as a monster or to die as a good man?


  1. Great post. I'm glad you mentioned Mark Ruffalo, he's one of my favourites too, very underrated, I just hope he doesn't quit like he said he wants to.

    I really love the film, but I dont think it is supposed to be a "surprise", the film unfolds in it's own way and it becomes about shifting perspectives. So there. But then again I might just bow to your superior film knowledge. :-)

  2. Thanks for the comments...

    Ok... cut out that "superior film knowledge" stuff please dude! I dabble the same as everyone.

    Yeah... I wish Scorcese had meant to tip his hand... but I think that he was genuinely attempting to surprise the audience on this one (and believe it or not... some of the audience in that particular screening were actually surprised, which I found shocking).

    Yeah, I do really like Mark Ruffalo a lot. His two greatest movies in my book are the absolutely sensational "My Life Without Me" and the quite cool but Jane Campion HAD to go and change the ending from the book... In The Cut.

    I thought I was the "lone" Mark Ruffalo fan in England. Glad there's more than one!

    Again, thanks very much for your comments. I appreciate it.