Soulless asylum

So, belatedly, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island … Now, I love Sight & Sound, the august film journal, and devour it every month, constantly inspired and informed by the words contained therein; I admire the seriousness and analysis it affords not just foreign and arthouse cinema, but often mainstream and genre pictures too. When, in the April issue, S&S went big on Shutter Island (“The Mind Games of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island,” ran the coverline), I allowed myself to be sucked in. Graham Fuller, who wrote the substantial cover story, is a fantastic writer, and the gravity with which he and reviewer Jonathan Romney, a committed deconstructivist, greeted the film was compelling. I expected a return to form. I needed one, as I’d had my problems with Gangs Of New York despite its operatic scope, and was truly underwhelmed by his belated Oscar-winner The Departed (and I’m not just talking about Ray Winstone’s accent), so I needed to see some juice from the great man. (I didn’t mind The Aviator, actually, since you ask.) The prospect of Scorsese using a neo-pulp novel by Dennis Lehane to try his hand at a 1950s B-movie about a fogbound insane asylum and a couple of investigating US Marshals seemed inviting. And both Fuller and Romney found all sorts of allusions and metaphors in the film: “Shutter Island is a concerted speculation on cinema itself,” announced Romney, while Fuller concluded, “Scorsese’s serious creepshow shocker, then, is both his most self-conscious movie in terms of its deceptive text, and his most rigorously psychoanalytical, analogous to Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945).” Let me at it.

What a disappointment it turned out to be. (It’s out on DVD on August 2, by the way.) It opens well, with Leonardo DiCaprio and the always-good Mark Ruffalo approaching the psychotheraputic equivalent of Skull Island on a crappy ferry from the Massachusetts mainland; year: 1954. In their wide-brimmed hats and beige raincoats, with pistols packed and badges at the ready, they are the US Marshals sent to investigate a mysterious disappearance/escape at the Ashecliffe hospital for the criminally insane. Ruffalo, in particular, just carries himself in such a way as to seem like he’s been lifted from a 1940s/1950s noir thriller and transplanted into a 2010 movie – a very clever performance. DiCaprio still, for me, looks like a boy dressed up in his dad’s clothes. This is not a comment on his acting, which is fine. It’s just the face that God gave him. Even with stubble and a few lines, he’s a baby, he’s a baby.

But the acting is not the problem with Shutter Island. It sort of suits it. As the yarn unfolds, DiCaprio and Ruffalo’s slightly stagey style is matched for unashamed melodrama by Ben Kingsley’s too-calm, too-reasonable psychiatrist and Max Von Sydow’s creepy German doctor, and that’s before we’ve met the inmates: Emily Mortimer’s unhinged child-killer, Jackie Earle Haley’s disfigured nut, even Patricia Clarkson’s cave-bound rogue doctor turned patient. The style is hyperreal, or hyperunreal. Scorsese’s love of films like Out Of The Past and Cat People and Bedlam is there for all to see – in fact, why didn’t he shoot Shutter Island in black and white, like Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and really go for the pastiche, if that was his intention? (There’s what looks a bit like deliberate back-projection but it’s too slick to convince as unconvincing, if you see what I mean. A version of Shutter Island made in 1954 would not have looked as good as this – but then, the source novel came out in 2003, so the whole thing’s a modern day construct based on a nostalgia for a fictional past.)

Now, I don’t wish to stray into SPOILER ALERT territory. This is a film with a twist. The twist is Dennis Lehane’s. It does not come at the very end. In fact, it’s a twist that starts becoming apparent about half an hour before the end, to the point that it becomes a kind of narrative ping pong ball for an extended stretch, as we are forced to decide who’s telling the truth and who’s not. That’s all I’ll say on specifics. But in general, it’s a twist that makes your heart sink, rather than your head spin. I’m sure it worked on the page. I can imagine a lot of the guff in this film working on the page. But when it’s right there, in front of you, be it seemingly reliable flashback or clearly unreliable fantasy, the sense of anything being inside a character’s mind is lost. All it does it makes you distrustful of what you are seeing, which isn’t a good thing. Michelle Williams, perhaps one of the most underused actresses working in Hollywood today (she’s in everything, but rarely gets anything meaningful to do), keeps turning up as the wet, dead wife of DiCaprio; clearly, she is not really there, as she is dead, but she’s handy as a clue that we don’t yet know all the answers.

Also – a contentious device for some people, this – DiCaprio’s character was among the US troops who liberated Dachau, so we get plenty of dramatic flashbacks to concentration camp bodies. This, plus mention of the Russians’ A-bomb test, and the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Nazi experiments really overloads the story with – woo – historical portent. Again, I’m sure it worked on the page, but on the screen it feels like significance for the sake of significance.

I’m not trashing the film. It looks good. Ruffalo, as I’ve said, is superb. And there is a thrilling sense of the director loving the work he’s paying tribute to. But as a stand-alone story, it struts around self-indulgently, jumping out of dark corners trying to make you jump, and then not just having its narrative cake and eating it, but regurgitating it and trying to form it back into a cake again, in order to eat it again.

I look forward to Martin Scorsese rediscovering his mojo. And although my expectations were unrealistically raised by the Sight & Sound coverage, at least Fuller and Romney were more entertaining and stimulating than the film they described.

This has been a blog entry not about the World Cup.

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10 thoughts on “Soulless asylum

  1. Argh! Not another “and then I woke up and it was all a dream” film? When will film makers/TV drama writers realise that this is NOT a satisfyingly amazing plot twist, it’s just laziness that lets you get away with any old guff. See also: Jacob’s Ladder; The Usual Suspects; Identity; Lost; Ashes to Ashes; Heroes.

  2. I watched this on a plane recently, and though of course those are not ideal conditions under which to properly appreciate a film, I thought it was tosh. Confusing and trying too hard to be noirish. I have to say I gave up after about an hour.

    You’re right about DiCaprio though. No matter what he does or what he wears he is a boy, not a man, and I find this very off-putting.

  3. Haven’t seen Shutter Island having been far from intrigued by the trailer nor many of the reviews I’d read and heard. Scorsese hasn’t made a truly great film (that I’ve seen) since 1995’s Casino. I agree that The Departed was an underwhelming average cop thriller with a great cast, which won a tokenistic Oscar for the director (I’ve yet to see The Aviator, but it’s currently sitting atop a pile of DVD’s next to my telly).

    I fully concur that Mark Ruffalo is “always-good” and would be terrific for the lead role if a big-screen version of Columbo ever got made.

    In other film related news, wondering if Andrew heard about the death of Ronald Neame? The director of The Poseidon Adventure passed away last week aged 99. Sad news, but it did bag me two points in my Celebrity Death Pool!

  4. Andrew, I also watched this film recently on a plane and had great expectations for what did start as a dark, interesting and dramatically shot film. Yes DiCaprio would play it better with the face of anyone else who looks more grown up (even me possibly) but he tries his best, as he appears to do in most films. But in reality he doesn’t hit the mark because of many reasons. Firstly, Ben Kingsley (Sir Ben) doesn’t do his role justice and secondly because by the end we don’t really care or find solice in his pain. On the plus side the rock climbing is admirable and Ruffalo is great. But when it comes to films on planes it’s better than ‘Up in the air’ with the ever more one dimensional George Clooney. Sorry ladies.

  5. I feel a little ashamed to admit this after reading all this…..but I really liked the film. Genuinely and thoroughly enjoyed watching it at the cinema, which is quite unusual these days.

    • No shame required, DaveK. Each to their own. It would be a dull world if we all agreed with each other. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Tim [above], for instance, found George Clooney one dimensional in Up In The Air; I enjoyed Up In The Air and found George Clooney delectable.

  6. I was slightly disappointed when I realised where it was all going as I would have much preferred it to be played as a straight “Evil doings in an island asylum” film.
    However, when the film revealed the event that caused the whole situation, I was so upset that I wished I’d not seen the film at all.
    It’s a bit like Sophie’s Choice – there’s certain concepts that are shown in films that I wish I could go back and unwatch them!

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