Saturday, February 27, 2010

America's Ghosts

Major Spoilers Herein

Who but Martin Scorsese could take a text that, on the surface, reeks of genre tropes and turn it into an intensely personal work of art? Scorsese has given the ghost story a radical face lift - Shutter Island is less about things that go bump in the night than it is about the ghosts in our soul, the ones that don't ever go away, the ones that haunt us individually and as a society. No doubt some will look at the picture and see nothing but the labyrinth plot, myriad twists (including a third act revelation that most will probably see coming a mile away), and the period details and think that's all there is to it, but like the best of Scorsese's work this is a film with a dark, tortured soul. Though on the surface this is a radical departure from what we've come to expect from Martin Scorsese, it's perfectly consistent with themes the director has been presenting his entire career.

The film's protagonist, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, in another great performance under Scorsese) is a veteran of World War II and a Federal Marshal assigned to investigate a missing patient at the titular island, the home of a mental institution for the criminally insane, the kind of people that other hospitals won't take. We're introduced to Daniels in a claustrophobic close up as he battles a bout of seasickness en route to Shutter Island, and this unsettling image highlights immediately that this is going to be one of the Scorsese pictures that plunges us square within the psychological state of mind of its main character. Scorsese, who has at his heart always been an expressionist, is often at his best when dramatizing a wounded psyche and a tormented soul, and DiCaprio's Teddy Daniels is certainly not without his share of personal tragedy: in addition to fighting in World War II and being present at the liberation of Dachau, we learn that his wife (an ethereal Michelle Williams) died young.

While the use of World War II and Holocaust imagery could have easily been nothing more than dramatic placating, Scorsese so intimately relates that horrific imagery to his character's personal tragedy that it's not just a cheap narrative device. From his early short The Big Shave (initially titled Viet '67, which gives you a clearer idea of what Scorsese was going for) and Taxi Driver, Scorsese is an artist who has been able to dramatize what war does to the human condition, and the massive guilt and psychological transgression that results from witnessing and participating in such extreme violence. The Big Shave stands as a testament to the frame of mind of a nation dealing with war as well as the trauma of the individuals who fight it, as the main character shaves himself in front of a mirror, first shaving away all his facial hair and then eventually cutting himself; though he lays on the political sentiment a little thick, the film is nevertheless incredibly effective. In Taxi Driver Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle is also a veteran of Vietnam, and this is a key element of understanding Bickle's behavior throughout the film, as he sees the streets of New York as a jungle that only he can tame. I bring up these two early works because I feel they are both important to understanding the drama at the heart of Shutter Island, though instead of post-Vietnam anxiety Scorsese here is summing up post-World War II and Cold War dread.

Which is not to say that the film doesn't work on the level of film-noir mystery/thriller. The film is extraordinarily well constructed, and with the exception of a few short sequences that feel like tired exposition to throw the audience off balance with respect to the central mystery, nary a moment passes that doesn't fit into the tapestry of the film. Scorsese's intimate knowledge of film history helps bring the genre and period details alive; the film has an atmosphere that feels like big budget Val Lewton filmed by Hitchcock. The script is tightly constructed and captures the '50s without having to resort to hackneyed and cliched period shorthand. The plot feels fairly by the numbers - Daniels and his partner, a pitch perfect Mark Ruffalo (who captures the unique spoken tempo seen in film noirs of the 50s), are sent to the island to investigate an escaped prisoner who's crime was that she drowned her three children in a lake behind her house - or so we're told. As Daniels digs deeper and deeper into the investigation , he begins to suspect something is afoul at the mental institution, and attempts to uncover a massive conspiracy involving fun activities such as Nazi-esque experiments on the mind, funded by no less than the House of Un-American Activities.

Much has been made of the aforementioned third act revelation, some stating that they find the twist to be a cheap parlor trick beneath a master like Martin Scorsese. But I find it impossible to engage with how the picture is distinctly Scorsese, far more so than his other collaborations with DiCaprio, without acknowledging the way this twist plays into themes the director has been dealing with throughout his career. After DiCaprio's Teddy Daniels spends the duration of the film chasing lead after lead, it's revealed that Daniels, real name Andrew Laeddis, is actually a patient at the mental hospital and what we've been watching is a radical role-playing experiment, designed to help Laeddis come to terms with the heartbreaking tragedy of his past. Not merely the passing of his wife and the devastating sights he'd witnessed while fighting in World War II, though that is certainly no small part of it, but that it was his wife who was mentally unbalanced and drowned their three children in a lake, and he'd forged the Daniels identity and created the conspiracy in his own mind to avoid acknowledging his personal tragedy.

This revelation, in addition to providing an ending that "keeps you guessing" (as the ads proudly proclaim, as though that's even much of an accomplishment), is an absolute kick in the gut from a dramatic standpoint. There is a reason that conspiracy theories - from Pearl Harbor to JFK to the moon landing to 9/11 - take on a life of their own. Though they imply a much darker, more sinister reality, they also imply an order to the world that simply does not exist - in their own, bizarre way, conspiracy theories are actually more comforting than the chaotic, anarchic world we inhabit (take this from a former tin-foil hat wearer): a world where bad things happen to good people, where the depth of tragedy knows no bounds, where the one good thing you have in the world can be suddenly and violently ripped away from you. The sequence that illustrates DiCaprio's character breaking through and acknowledging his own past - a vivid, haunting nightmare of a sequence where Laeddis comes home from work to find his wife soaking wet and his three children dead in the lake, pulls them out and lays them to rest in the yard, and then shoots his wife dead after he asks her to "set [her] free" - is so fully realized in the dramatic sense that it breaks your heart. Of all the tragic, horrible, fucked up things Martin Scorsese has put in front of a camera in his career as a director, this may stand as the most tragic, horrible, and fucked up yet. Considering the magnitude of Laeddis' personal tragedy, it's difficult to blame him for living in a fictional reality - in spite of his alternate reality's dark implications, it's still far easier to cope with than his personal tragedy. A large part of this sequence's effectiveness stems from DiCaprio's remarkably nuanced portrayal - though some will never be able to look past his heartthrob phase, he has shown much depth as an actor, and he has evolved considerably under the watchful eye of Martin Scorsese.

This is the point where the key Scorsese theme comes in to the film - penance. From that early short The Big Shave through Mean Streets and his great Paul Schrader collaborations Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Bringing out the Dead has been atoning for one's sins - some would say that this is merely Catholic guilt manifested cinematically, but Scorsese relates the concept of shame to human experience richly enough that it's not expressly theological. After his breakthrough, Laeddis is informed that if he doesn't accept reality - that if he regresses back to thinking he's Teddy Daniels investigating the big-bad mental hospital - then they will be forced to lobotomize him so that he can no longer harm other patients or hospital workers (he is, after all, trained as a solider and Federal Marshal). Immediately after the sequence when Laeddis acknowledges the truth of who he is and what he's done, there is a short sequence of him talking to his 'partner' (who is revealed to be his psychiatrist), and he seems to have regressed back to the Daniels persona - he talks to his doctor like he's his partner, asking him what their next move is, and Laeddis' doctor makes a gesture to the medical staff that, tragically, their experiment did not work and a portion of his brain must be removed. But Scorsese throws in a line that complicates things that, from what I understand, is not in the novel - he says to his partner/doctor "This place makes me wonder which would be worse: to live as a monster, or to die as a good man", and he marches off, and his fate is implicit. The question, though, is whether he honestly regressed or if he knowingly baited them into thinking that he had regressed, so he no longer had to live within himself. It adds an incredibly moving element of complexity and ambiguity to the film, though either way the implications are both tragic and deeply disturbing.

While the film is viewed by some amongst the critical community as a slight genre effort from a renowned master after a string of Oscar-bait (though I don't feel either of these criticisms are accurate), this is the most distinctly Scorsese of all of his DiCaprio collaborations - Gangs of New York was a long gestating passion project, Aviator was more a DiCaprio project that Scorsese finessed, and The Departed was the slight genre effort Shutter Island is being written off as that retroactively became Ocar-bait by virtue of the fact that it won an Oscar. Though Shutter Island can indeed be appreciated as the thrill-a-minute-keep-you-guessing mystery film that it's being advertised as, Scorsese has managed to manifest his personal vision in a work that seems fairly atypical of its genre, and what may be the year's first truly great film is the result.


Dave said...

Ryan - An absolutely superb essay here... pretty much mirror my thoughts, but I didn't have the energy or patience to lay them out as spectacularly as you do here!

I have friends who (admittedly) are "go see the big new blockbuster" type movie fans who complain about the twist at the end. Just yesterday one of them said: "How can you think that was good... you could see that twist coming the whole way." I just shook my head, said "You missed the entire point," and let it go. I knew that any kind of discussion was going to be futile.

This is a great film and I love seeing you give this outstanding treatment and analysis.

Ryan Kelly said...

Dave, thank you so much for the kind words.

You were right to call the discussion quits, as the people looking to discuss it strictly on the plot level. I saw the film twice, and found it played much better knowing exactly where it was going to go (to my mind, the mark of a rich film), because you could focus on the very real human drama at the film's center. This seems to be the element most people have responded to.

Adam Zanzie said...

After I read this, I went over to YouTube and quickly watched The Big Shave, which I hadn't seen before- but then realized I just HAD to once I found out how essential of a title it is in Scorsese's filmography (most recently, even Ebert referred to it in his new Great Movies review of Pink Floyd The Wall). When I watched the film, I didn't pick up that the guy was about to be shipped off to Vietnam; I was too distracted by all that sickening gushing blood and... ECK.

But reading your thoughts on how veterans' postwar stress disorders play an important role in Scorsese's filmography was something I had never thought of before. You are definitely right about how Shutter Island is akin to The Big Shave and Taxi Driver in this respect. I don't know if it's as strong a connection, but does New York, New York perhaps share this theme as well? Even though De Niro's character isn't mentally dysfunctional in that one, he does come home a womanizer and a bit of a bully to little miss Liza. Then again, Scorsese has always specialized in stories about characters you don't wanna know (except for Kundun and Age of Innocence, lol).

Honestly, I've seen Shutter Island two weekends in a row now, and would happily go again this weekend. I thought about writing my own blog piece on it, but you and Bill and Jason and Craig and Kevin and Dave beat me to it... so I've got nothing left to say! Maybe what I'll do is write a joint piece on Shutter Island AND The Ghost Writer and try to figure out how to pay attention to both in one essay (once I get a chance to see the latter film... this weekend, hopefully). Bravo, Ryan.

Ryan Kelly said...

Adam, The Big Shave is indeed disturbing. And I don't think anything in the film other than the character's age really gives away that that's the real point of the movie, but its former title of Viet '67 sure does. And I can't really field the question on New York, New York, as I haven't seen it! Shameful, I know. But it's still a blind spot.

I would encourage you to write about it and, if you're struggling, may I suggest as a jumping off point discussing that you were at first disappointed by the twist (many people have expressed this), and then appreciated it more the second time? Just a suggestion. But don't let the fact that others have written on the subject stop you, I'm sure you'll find plenty to say.

Jason Bellamy said...

Nice review, Ryan. I'm kind of talked out on Shutter Island for a while, having mixed it up on several blogs, but this line really nails what I like about the film ... and what I don't like about it: "Scorsese is an artist who has been able to dramatize what war does to the human condition." When the film is indeed about the human condition, it's captivating. When it gets lost in plot, it's rather bland.

Ryan Kelly said...

Thank you for reading and for the compliment, Jason. I agree that the film is not perfect and some of the scene's designed to throw the audience off, especially towards the end, are not as strong as they could have been. The most notable examples for me would be the scenes with Jackie Earl Haley and Patricia Clarkson - but I like them both a lot and the acting is so strong that it's not as out of place as it could have been. But I agree that many of the best sequences are the ones that underline the human drama, the flashback sequences are all stunning.

Jacob Schlather said...

Just one small gripe:

"Who but Martin Scorsese could take a text that, on the surface, reeks of genre tropes and turn it into an intensely personal work of art?"

Pierrot Le Fou.

Ryan Kelly said...

Jacob, the key difference between the two films is that Godard actually wrote Pierrot le Fou, and it's a continuation of his channeling American movie tropes into existential art. It's not quite like Scorsese with Shutter Island, who is coming to a project as a hand for hire, and still manifesting his vision in unexpected ways.

Sam Juliano said...

I am also all talked out on this film, but that's not going to stop me from issue my effusive praise for this astonishing review, Mr. Kelly. This is top-drawer stuff! Excellent point here:

"While the use of World War II and Holocaust imagery could have easily been nothing more than dramatic placating, Scorsese so intimately relates that horrific imagery to his character's personal tragedy that it's not just a cheap narrative device."

But I can point to so much in this masterful piece (the best you've ever written, methinks) that have me nodding my head, especially since I'm a huge fan. You are a gifted young man.

Ryan Kelly said...

Sam, thank you for the encouragement, it is most appreciated!

The discourse all around the film blogosphere has been incredibly rich, and even if it's not perfect at least it has people talking, and most importantly talking about substance.

Roger Ebert said...

About yer gripes with some of the scenes used to "throw off the audience" Mr. Glynn
Aren't they all the more essential to setting up that final scene in the lighthouse Old bean. Isn't their slight awkwardness intentioned to cause the viewer to slightly disassociate themself with Leo.

If he had just arrived on the island and questioned a few patients he never would have believed what they told him in the light house.

Was it not necessary for him to put his intellect on display by creating these complex schemes to justify his own distorted reality.

Sam Juliano said...

Roger Ebert?

Wow, wow, wow!

This great review deserves the great man's presence.

Congrats again Mr. Kelly!!!!!!

Ryan Kelly said...

Sam, it's just my good friend Kyle (the cat's out of the bag!) posting under the name for a larf. He posts under various pseudonyms... my favorites being "That's What She", "Ponce de Leon", "Punk Ass" and "Ethan Edwards"... but there have been so many!

Ryan Kelly said...

Not Roger Ebert, while I think that is one of the ultimate effects of those scenes, I don't know if they're really necessary to the overall picture, again with the exception of the fact that they are supposed to throw you off so the big twist is even more shocking. The scene with Patricia Clarkson (again, who I've always liked very much as an actor) is particularly problematic, because it doesn't fit into the whole 'experiment' narrative thread - why would they let him climb down a mountain when it was windy with the tide coming in? Again, I think the acting in these sequences is so good that it covers up that they're a tad extraneous, but I still think the movie would be better off without them.

I just think the conspiracy theme was obvious enough at that point and those scenes just kind of pound it into your skull. It's a small complaint overall, though.

Sam Juliano said...

LOL Ryan! I was fooled as much as I was by SHUTTER ISLAND'S ending. And while I do love that cave scene with Ms. Clarkson, you do raise an excellent point there that has me thinking.

Ryan Kelly said...

I think the Haley and Clarkson sequences work as self contained units, but I'm wondering if they really enrich the film as a whole. If it is too much, it's kind of like too much of a good thing, so again this is a minor quibble overall.

Adam Zanzie said...

The Clarkson scene is rather odd. I really like the scene with Haley, however. When he's begging Teddy to "let her go", that struck a nerve in me- especially when I saw the film a second time, because Scorsese starts playing Robbie Robertson's added violin scores to "This Bitter Earth" on the soundtrack at that point. I found it incredibly moving.

Ryan Kelly said...

As a dramatic work I think the film plays much better knowing what's going to happen and you can appreciate the tragedy that permeates every single moment.

Homiebrain said...

It kills me that I can't read this yet, much like I had to hold off on your Inglourious Basterds review. This is something I've been hearing about and anticipating for months though, so I'm definitely looking forward to finally seeing it in the theater and reading your review afterward!

Ryan Kelly said...

I'd see it again, so we should go so we can talk about it!

Eric R. said...

So far I've seen the film once and I thought the drama and the twist ending worked perfectly on me. I think it may work even better when you don't know what's coming. But I'll have to wait and see how it affects me after the second viewing.

Also, I agree with you that the cave scene with Clarkson is not necessary although it was effectively acted and filmed. You know what other scene I felt to be odd? The one where DiCaprio has a conversation with a guard about the natural violence of human beings. I've given that scene some thought and I'm not really sure it's needed either.

Ryan Kelly said...

Eric, for some reason your comment was not e-mailed to me and I did not notice it until just this moment. My apologies.

Truthfully, I think the film plays much better knowing where it's going. First of all, instead of trying to 'solve' the movie you're looking for things that support the ending, and Scorsese litters the film with clues that make it that much richer a second time. And the drama becomes doubly effective.

I really like the scene with Ted Levine as the guard, though, because it's really the point where I started to see that this guy was funny in the head. I especially love the "You're as violent as they come" bit.

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