And a Rock Feels No Pain: Shutter Island
Part of the fun of watching a Scorsese film is being surprised by the brio with which he stages and edits his sequences; his camera roams fluidly or the composition pops like a flashbulb perhaps the narrative even takes an unexpected turn that doesn’t feel like a prosaic “twist.” Shutter Island, however, looks and feels exactly like you’d expect it to for any film with this synopsis: “U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his partner arrive at an isolated psychiatric facility for the criminally insane in the mid-1950s to investigate the disappearance of a patient who murdered her children. As ominous clues are raised that suggest a deeper, darker mystery, Teddy begins to question the motives of everyone around him, and perhaps his own sanity…”
Guess the twist. Go ahead. Guess.1
The exhilaration is officially gone from the Martin Scorsese picture. Such a thuddingly generic setup based on a novel by popular crime novelist Dennis Lehane might not look promising in the hands of most other directors, but Scorsese’s career brims with material that might have been considered ho-hum Oscar bait. His zeal for pure filmmaking burnished the rust off creaky prestige projects and turned the biopic and literary adaptation into high art — without ever sacrificing the joy of energetic craftsmanship.2 Even the questionable artistry of the concert film was quelled by The Last Waltz, considered to be among the best of its kind ever made. I don’t enjoy all his films, but Scorsese has received enormous acclaim and general approbation for each of his projects (some, albeit, in retrospect). Martin Scorsese adapting a lesser work by the author of previous critical hits Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone is not a reason in itself to lose hope.
Except that the last ten years have demonstrated a concerted lack of inspiration. From the mess that was Gangs of New York to the workable but unremarkable star vehicle The Aviator to the stolid remake of Infernal Affairs (longer! bloodier! f-wordier!) that finally netted him his coveted and long overdue Oscar, this has unquestionably been Scorsese’s weakest decade as a filmmaker. Shutter Island is the culmination of a trend that demonstrates an irrevocable, lamentable fact: Scorsese has lost his touch.
Too frequently, people criticize a film for being “too long,” without ever really understanding what they mean by that. Scorsese’s features for the last ten years, however, have been “too long” by at least half an hour. Not just because he didn’t trim bits here and there. Whole scenes are unnecessary, and Shutter Island is a case study in directorial indulgence. I love seeing Ted Levine,3 but his character exists for the purpose of delivering a solitary monologue about violence — as if the audience didn’t figure out that Teddy Daniels’ life was soaked in the stuff. Patricia Clarkson (recently the grace note incarnate of Woody Allen’s Whatever Works) shows up for one scene to deliver a metric ton of exposition that only serves to convolute the already-pervasive milieu of inchoate paranoia. She’s superfluous. The film could have even managed to do without the great Max von Sydow, who is apparently typecast until the end of his days as “Scary German Guy” (with apologies to the immortal Leonardo Cimino).4 I love watching these character actors at work, but only in the service of a film. Here, like the frozen bodies in the Dachau flashbacks, arranged like modernist sculptures, they’re just scenery. The art of great performers reduced to wall hangings. Kitsch. Indulgence like this makes the movie too damn long.
Most bizarrely, Scorsese has made a career out of plumbing masculine psychopathology, but the first time he sets foot across the threshold of an actual mental hospital, he flounders for a way to dramatize the failure of modern medicine to find a cure. I liked that Shutter Island shows that catharsis is not a panacea, but Scorsese’s art has always been fueled by cathartic power. It just doesn’t fit with the way Scorsese has approached filmmaking in the past, and it doesn’t even square with the film language adopted for the film.
Scorsese enjoys piling on the horror flick atmosphere — most of the film literally takes place on a dark and stormy night5 — but there’s nothing profoundly terrifying about the film. Even the specter of a mother murdering her children or the abominable distress of hydrogen bombs poised for launch are treated as perfunctory acknowledgements of human evil, rather than an exploration. These terrors aren’t phantoms. They’re real-life horrors that are only inexplicable in terms of the magnitude of the suffering they cause. But Shutter Island’s empathy with insanity doesn’t quite jive with its apparent desire to reflect the things that scare us in everyday life. The dramatization of casual racism or infanticide is no more viscerally frightening than reading about such events in the morning paper. In a detached, almost academic sense, anyone with a heart can understand on an abstract level that there are places and people awash in misery and darkness, and that can be marginally affecting, but that academic tone (maintained with flourishes of dark, modern classical music, as if to remind us that this is more an essay in horror filmmaking than an actual horror film) is what keeps the film’s pretensions to emotional authenticity from stinging.
From the leading man on down, Shutter Island is adrift. Leo DiCaprio can certainly play feverish and desperate (as in The Departed), but Scorsese’s inability to suck the pulp out of intrinsically pulpy material is mirrored by DiCaprio’s godawfully straight-laced take on the material. Instead of tapping his inner Nic Cage and following his volatile muse right over the top into the orbit, DiCaprio demonstrates how weak an actor he is when he’s miscast. He’s got one mode, and it looks remarkably like some poor schmuck who caught bird flu. The Aviator made the most of DiCaprio’s inclination for coasting on star power by having him showboat as a precocious, charismatic wunderkind whose descent into mental illness was inextricable from his genius and ambition; he was a visionary. In Shutter Island, his potential descent into madness is tied to the apparent necessity of a predictably lame third-act twist; a script by number interpreted by an actor on autopilot under the direction of a filmmaker on cruise control.6
DiCaprio’s inauthenticity corrodes the texture of the film, and this lack of authencity is beginning to seem endemic to adaptations of Dennis Lehane’s work. On the page, Lehane writes genre stories that are elevated by rich characters and an impeccable feel for setting. He’s a gifted prose stylist whose pulpy plots are leavened by cynical humor and a sense of streetwise authenticity — his neighborhoods and characters from the wrong side of the Beantown tracks are both larger than life and terribly intimate, sort of like if Henry Miller’s Black Spring had been a crime novel. Neither Clint Eastwood nor Ben Affleck was able to nail it, for slightly different reasons. Both Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone come across as “the Hollywood version” of hard-knock life in working class Massachusetts. These movies are genre potboilers that want to be taken seriously as high drama.
Even the once-great Scorsese can’t overcome the tension between authenticity and manipulation — the artist yearns for open-ended tragedy while the movie geek wants a slow-burn thriller in the vein of Val Lewton or Jacques Tourneur. With the same script, this film could have been serviceably directed by any number of filmmakers to very similar effect. The stamp Scorsese put on the film is virtually indistinguishable from the stamp any semi-learned film buff could imagine any old director with a decent eye for genre entertainment putting on it. In some cases, the result might be better.
It’s a testament to how uninspired Scorsese has become that Shutter Island’s Dachau flashbacks and dream sequences can’t help but feel like dull echoes of Inglourious Basterds. The comprehension Scorsese displays here of insanity and evil is only “real” in the context of other films,7 much like Basterds. At this point in each man’s respective career, Tarantino is the one who seems simply to revel in making a movie, and letting his films’ “movie-ness” work in their favor. Scorsese stretches for profound insight, but the zest with which he stages his WWII flashbacks and the dull, protracted, unironic sobriety with which he films the rather ironic, climactic revelations are incomparably limp when you consider the reckless delight of watching Eli Roth demolish Hitler’s face with hundreds of rounds of submachine gun rounds.
These fairly contemporary films may have been released more than half a year apart, but they are both infused with a nostalgia for older models of filmmaking and an affection for the way a period setting can inform and comment upon a genre story. Unlike Inglourious Basterds, the debt Shutter Island owes to the Holocaust is nonspecific; its horror could be any war horror. The wounds of its protagonist could be from any period in history, much like the shadow play that film turns out to be. Even though Tarantino (for better or worse) completely threw history out the window, his entire enterprise is laced with an awareness that tethers his thematic concerns to a certain time and place, thus making the film more universally relevant (and controversial). Shutter Island, which spends so much time reveling in concentration camp imagery, 1950s psychobabble, and g-man iconography, doesn’t use any of this context to any effect whatsoever. The film, as directed by Scorsese, is unmoored, haphazard, and shiftless. It could be about almost any of Scorsese’s protagonists at any time. Shutter Island is a noir-ish mystery without a clue; it’s a psychological character study where we don’t ever get to really know the character; it’s a horror thriller without any thrills or chills; it’s a period flick without any actual ties to the period. It’s simply banal. Aptly, this illustrates that a film bearing the imprimatur of “Martin Scorsese picture” is no longer anything special. Maybe Teddy Daniels should have been played by Uma Thurman. That would have been truly unexpected.
Edited by Tracy McCusker.
- Leo’s actually a mental patient housed on the island. *collective gasp* ↩
- Adaptations: The Age of Innocence, The Last Temptation of Christ, Bringing Out the Dead, Goodfellas, Casino; biopics: Raging Bull, The Aviator, Kundun; remakes and sequels: The Color of Money, Cape Fear, The Departed. ↩
- a.k.a. Captain Leland Stottlemeyer to us Monk fans. ↩
- Even though he’s as Swedish as they come, apparently American audiences aren’t expected to parse the accent even cursorily. Or have any working knowledge of his collaborations with Ingmar Bergman. ↩
- Check out Michael Koresky’s review of the film over at Reverse Shot for a more detailed discussion of Shutter Island as a genre flick. His insights express what I’d set out to say in a much better fashion than I can muster. ↩
- I can’t help wonder if Scorsese would have been more constructively engaged had he settled a better-suited thespian in the leading role. Perhaps Daniel Day-Lewis, who has done great work for Scorsese in the past. Or even Nick Nolte (fantastic in Scorsese’s short film for the New York Stories triptych), who virtually epitomizes the damaged alpha male persona. If DiCaprio is too young for the role, Nolte might have been too old, but the role would have been fully inhabited; Nolte has the well-earned rep of having actually lived on the edge. One actor headed up a brat pack “pussy posse” in his prime; the other might very plausibly threaten your life if you swiped his cigarettes. ↩
- Usually older and better ones. ↩