Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Wicker-Shutter Laffin'-Spittin' Man

Watching SHUTTER ISLAND last night, I felt kind of like how I did watching EYES WIDE SHUT or THE WICKER MAN remake, two movies where big budget and directorial over-thinking were applied to a story better served perhaps by a grimy, no-budget backyard or city-without-a-permit shoot full of unknown actors, discovered on a Something Weird double bill from 1972. There, any of these three films would be instant "discoveries" for the cult film niche dwellers, but with so much high tech Oscar-reaching craftsmanship involved in these B-movie plots, so many highbrow toots and expository whistles, we end up looking at both less and more than the sum of parts that probably originated in some screenwriters collection of DC House of Mystery comics and was never intended to bear the full brunt of 21st century Hollywood craftspeople.

Spoiler Alert! 

Here are some issues I had with the film:

1. "GOOD" GRIEF: If Leo's character is going to be delusional and alcoholic from issues of Holocaust and infant murder, I can assure you he'd a) start drinking again as things got really fucked up on the island and b) his first instinct when finding all that death in his big flashback would not be to scream "Noooooo!" up at an overhead camera--as has been a cliche as far back even as 90s "McBain" satires on THE SIMPSONS (and which I even made fun of Leo doing a few years ago, before he even did it!)

No sir, he would not.

A real alcoholic in dealing with something as horrific as that big climactic flashback would have calmly gone back in the kitchen for that bottle and started drinking and calling the cops, going safely into a fugue state of numbness from booze and repression, winding up a bit like James Stewart after his VERTIGO breakdown, which he'd clearly never emerge from. He's a Ranger, for Christ's sakes, not a wailing widow, and if he's going to process grief in huge cathartic Oscar-baiting howls of anguish that means he probably won't repress the memory two seconds later; you can't have it both ways: you can't process grief and repress it at the same time. The person who has hysterical hallucinations in denial of reality years later likely never properly reacted in the first place. Leo seems to be accepting all the blame and grief of the war in his ghastly howls: primal scream therapists would surely approve.

2. TOO TOUGH - Leo needs to learn that gaining a bunch of weight won't make him look coppish, just bloated. He still needs to try that thing of leaning on his baby face for dangerous criminal associations, ala Richard Widmark in ROAD HOUSE and KISS OF DEATH, which I've been urging since his Ridley Scott film, BODY OF LIES (2008). Instead, Leo acts as if he's been obsessed with the JFK-style "Bahstin" accent he learned for Marty's last film, THE DEPARTED (pronounced "the dee-pAHted") and is determined to perfect the "tough cop who cared too much" martyr role even if it kills us. As it is, he's still one of those actors who becomes laughable when they try to be menacing, to get information. Until he plays on his strengths rather than weaknesses, he'll seem petulant rather than assertive, sulky rather than manipulative, comical rather than dangerous. A role with John Wayne in a Hawks film might have saved Leo from this strait-jacket, as it is, he's like Lancelot without an Arthur. And Scorsese ain't no Arthur, he's more like the New York Yankee in King Arthur's Court, scribbling down notes in awe as Lancelot prattles about his ability to poke other dudes in the shield. And PS, Lancelot would have been a wash-out if he didn't weaken and sleep with Arthur's wife. Until Leo does a similar high horse-dismount and armour removal, he'll always be just a guy on a horse with a rod, trying to be tough, like Wilmer the neurotic gunsel in MALTESE FALCON, only he's cast as Samuel Spade.

3. BOOZE: Alcoholism is not a trait you can pick up and put down with the ease that Leo's characters seem to, in Marty's films anyway. For THE BASKETBALL DIARIES, Leo ably--nay, brilliantly!--conveyed the effects of opiate withdrawal, so why in THE DEPARTED is he a Xanax head when the mood suits him, as if he felt his cranberry-drinking little pisher character needed some edginess, then forgot about it two minutes later once Farmiga scribbles him a script for 20 Valium, even though she recognizes his sulky petulance as "drug-seeking behave-yeh." And why is his SHUTTER ISLAND United States mah-shall an alcoholic only in flashbacks and  thus able to refuse offered drinks when he's clearly sweating and shaking like a lunatic and there's about a thousand justifications for a relapse all around him? No alcoholic suffering so much delusion would be likely to forget that relief is just a swig away. Also, his shakes and migraines would make much more sense if he was detoxing... i.e., if he never intended to spend the night at the island and so didn't properly, ahem, pack for the trip. If I'd have seen this with my old AA crew, we'd have walked out over these details!

4. DACHAU BLUES - The use of Nazi concentration camps could have been very effective but again it's overkill and explains nothing, as Leo's memory of it is refracted enough to make him a hero of the war by shooting unarmed Nazi guards during liberation. This actually one of the film's most hilarious moments - a cliche'd ridiculous tracking shot along a huge row of disarmed German guards lined up against a fence, all patiently waiting for the camera to reach them before dying in a spastic dance, falling only as the camera passes onwards; before the camera reaches them they just cower in little clusters rather than running for it like any sensible soldier of the Reich - they're filmed like a bunch of bathing beauties in an Esther Williams musical number, diving into the pool one at a time as the camera passes by. Giving Leo this cathartic moment should be enough! Leo, you avenged the Jews singlehanded, how can they ever cower, Schindler-like, before you enough in gratitude!? But no, Leo also has to brood and sulk about it later (and maybe it didn't happen we learn later, not that anything matters by then). Again it's a matter of having cake and eating it too. He's processed hate and grief and anguish but repressed them at the same time and that ain't how it works, except when Oscar beckons, and Scorsese indulges.

As I've written before, these things seem to point to some inherent fear on Leo's part to alienate audience sympathy, and yet, Leo! Leo! Look at your antecedents who might have starred in this film were it made in the 1950s when it's set: Bogart, Van Johnson, Aldo Ray, Robert Taylor, Robert Ryan, Dick Powell (hell Powell's face was even babier than Leo's, yet Powell pulled off playing tough guy Phillip Marlowe pretty damned well in MURDER MY SWEET), none of them would have been afraid to delve into audience alienation via realistic displays of sadism, greed, delirium tremens (Mitchum in EL DORADO expertly plays one of those rare drunks that's funny, sad, and realistic at the same time), lust, avarice, masochism, uncontrollable rage, moral weakness, humor, or hostility. Look at IN A LONELY PLACE or ON DANGEROUS GROUND. Imagine the tortured resilience Ryan would have brought to SHUTTER ISLAND. Leo might have done all right if SHUTTER was directed by Nicholas Ray, but instead we get lost in a house of guilt-edged mirrors that's both a noir-flypaper doom device and a taunting reflection of Leo's own inability to "go all the way"  into audience-alienating ambiguity the way, say, Nicolas Cage does so well in LEAVING LAS VEGAS, THE WICKER MAN and KNOWING.

Another baby-faced brother, Orson Welles, explored all the ambiguities of a would-be romantic lead/fall-guy in LADY FROM SHANGHAI when he should have been playing the cranky genius crippled lawyer, a demon who gets all the lines and which Orson surely meant at least unconsciously for himself to play (his old Mercury Theater stock player, Everett Sloane, does a good job, but lacks the charisma that even slimy lawyer villains need if they're going to get so many lines). As a leading man, Orson's all wet, and the wet becomes part of the thing. If the wet could become part of the thing for Leo, then well, maybe Stumpy could put the bottle away.

All that said, the film is still cool and I loved the ultra-ambiguous (tragic? who knows?) ending which leaves you with a lot to think about, and then forget ever happened. But hey, at least they freaking smoke in this movie, which was the style of the time and don't let 'em tell you different!

There's a lot of beautiful little ways in which the always superb and surprising Mark Ruffalo steals the show as Leo's fellow marshall (maybe). As his voice lowers, with only a hint of sadness, back to saying "What's up, boss?" we get a nicely understated and ambiguous look at the way insanity reasserts itself, a veritable entire MEMENTO warped and shrinky-dinked down into a single line.

P.S. If you liked the whirligig weirdness of SHUTTER ISLAND I'd also recommend the 1962 CABINET OF CALIGARI, an in-name-only remake of the old silent expressionist classic. Penned by PSYCHO author Robert Bloch, it's got the budget of an anthology TV show but really uses the limits of the frame and dodges the cliches of horror films and "sanitarium" films to play with audience sympathy and narrative expectations. And it tells almost the same story. Or does it? Mwhahahaha! And instead of a pudgy man-child determined to convince us he's Russell Crowe, we have a hot blonde chick with retrograde amnesia and a tendency towards violent outbursts, making this film like the limbo world between the two halves of PSYCHO (that is to say, HORROR HOTEL and DEMENTIA).

I'd still recommend SHUTTER ISLAND, but I'd lower my expectations, drink a bottle of whiskey and smoke "laced" cigarettes before watching, otherwise you might suffer from the compulsion to remember the trauma of watching millions of dollars and acres of craftsmanship and talent all laser-beam focused on telling a story that's been told before, but it's still better than that ambulance ghost movie Scorsese made awhile ago, WAKING THE DEAD. Well, even Hitchcock had his SHUTTER ISLAND moments, i.e. SUSPICION and STAGE FRIGHT. And sure, SHUTTER is entertaining and refreshingly free of sex or violence. But frankly, it's the sort of story John Carpenter would probably pass on as too cliche'd. And he's the one who should be making it, on a budget of $5, in his backyard, in the dead of night, with Adrienne Barbeau as the cop.

And Leo, if you keep frowning your face is going to look as Satanic as Robert Taylor's in his sleek MGM late 1950s prime. Is that what you want? AWESOME! But you've still got about fifteen years to go before the lines will set. May I recommend next time you make a film like this, that you go ahead and play the evil doctor? Or learn some karate? Or take some freakin' challenges other than the testesteronally-challenged wunderkind asserting his fierceness and cracking up in the process? What Hawks would have taught Leo is that being "good" has nothing to do with gruffness or bulk, and crazy has nothing to do with screaming up to heaven while cradling a perfectly dead child in your arms, it has to do with being a good shot, and sticking up for your friends, and most of all, being true to your nature, and freakin' takin' a drink once in awhile. Luke, I am your Fah-thuh.


  1. I liked this movie a lot, I enjoyed its Bava style of lighting a scene, and even its Bava like atmosphere. I liked the 'twist' though I did see it coming.

    I just love how much it feels like an old school horror movie, with the constant thunder and ligthning, the mystery, the spooky island, the castle like assylum. Its little touches like those that make this one a keeper for me.

  2. It's a mess. It's incoherent. It's over-the-top. It's brilliant. It might end up being my favorite Scorsese film.

  3. Thanks FC, good point about the nonstop thunder and lightning... I love all the old dark house movies of the 1930s and 40s! I saw the ending coming too but then the film keeps going from there, almost like Vertigo, where the twist comes 3/4 of the way through the film and then keeps twisting.

    CJ, that's strange to say, except maybe if you don't like De Niro playing brutish thugs. How can you like Shutter Island more than Goodfellas?

  4. How can I like Shutter Island more than Goodfellas? Chalk it up partly to a general preference for gothic/horror/noir over mafioso films. If nothing else, they tend to be more interesting stylistically. I also like Cape Fear a lot. And of course, Taxi Driver.

    Shutter Island improves on repeated viewings. On viewing No. 3, I was particularly impressed by the subtlety of Ruffalo's performance as the caring doctor pretending to be Leo's federal marshall partner (the acting within the acting). In fact, I found all the performances amazing - even Leo's. I'd much rather rewatch this than Goodfellas or The Departed.

    The messy over-reaching aspect of the project (which I dig) comes from Lehane's throwing into the stew every American post-war neurosis he could think of - just as Fuller's SHOCK CORRIDOR attempts to tackle all the cultural neuroses of the early '60s. I liked your comparison to the '62 CALIGARI (I thought of that film also). An alternate title for your post could have been EYES WIDE SHUTTER CORRIDOR.


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