Tuesday, February 23, 2010

SHUTTER ISLAND - the auteur's B-movie

SHUTTER ISLAND is a psychological horror film directed by Martin Scorsese and based on the popular 2003 novel by Denis Lehane. This faithful adaptation is a self-consciously old-fashioned sort of an enterprise, set in a maximum security prison for the criminally insane, in 1950s America. It deals very deeply in notions of personal and national guilt – denial and repression. The protagonist is a veteran soldier turned Federal Marshall called Teddy Daniels (Leonardo di Caprio). He has been three two traumas – being present at the liberation of Dachau, and having his wife die in an arson attack on their apartment. Nominally, he has come to Shutter Island to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a female patient/prisoner called Rachel Salondo. His real agenda is to investigate the whereabouts of the man who killed his wife though - he protests – not to take revenge – and to investigate what really happens in Ward C. The central puzzle of the film is what is the agenda of the employees of Shutter Island, not least the lead psychologists (the superbly sinister Sir Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow.)

SHUTTER ISLAND is a profoundly odd film. Just as with THE SHINING it sees an A-list auteur apply his talent to a B-movie genre – the brooding psychological thriller. All the way through the movie, I found myself being brought out of the film by the sheer quality of Martin Scorsese’s framing or Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing. I was also deeply impressed by the sophistication of the intellectual material – the conflation of personal and political guilt. But somehow, the sheer quality of the thematic material and its production mitigated against the hyper-real construction of a sinister atmosphere, through Robbie Robertson’s careful use of Mahler and the fictively sombre grey clouds hanging over the eponymous prison island with its gothic central house and proto-fascist civil war prison fort. It also mitigated against my emotional involvement with the film. Thus scenes that should be downright petrifying or deeply emotionally moving were neutered by their subvention to the tricky plot.

The movie is thus, at times, deliberately bad – especially in its opening sequences – with its self-consciously over-the-top weather effects and ludicrously over-bearing score. It is also at times extremely good – so good that it breaks the B-movie veneer. In particular, I would cite the flashback scenes to Dachau, especially the mass execution, which plays like a sort of demented ballet. At other times, Scorsese seems to be reaching for something darker and more twisted than I have seen him wrestle with before, but basically fail in that task. The way in which he treats the hallucinations and warped memories of his protagonist is beautiful and bizarre. But it brings to mind comparison with BUG and David Lynch’s recent work – not least MULHOLLAND DRIVE. I couldn’t help but wonder what a less faithful and more free-wheeling treatment of the material might have looked like in the hands of someone like Lynch.

And this brings me to my final thought on SHUTTER ISLAND: it is, after all, a beautifully made but rather conventional treatment of the subject matter. Scorsese’s art is well-honed but he is somehow a prisoner of it. He hasn’t allowed himself to truly break free and show us something so unhinged as to utterly disturb us. Neither has he subverted the B-movie horror film in the way that a Quentin Tarantino did with World War Two films in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (a film which, by the way, looks better with each passing day).

SHUTTER ISLAND premiered at Berlin 2010. It was released last weekend in the US, Argentina, Argentina, Denmark, Georgia, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Russia, Bulgaria, Canada, Finland, Lithuania, Norway, Spain and Sweden. It is released this weekend in Belgium, France, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Israel, New Zealand, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Austria, Estonia, Iceland, Taiwan and Venezuela. It opens on March 5th in Switzerland, Hungary, Brazil and Italy. It opens on March 12th in the UK, Egypt, Mexico and Turkey. It opens on March 18th in South Korea and on March 26th in Poland. It opens in April 9th in Japan and on April 15th in Singapore.

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