Film: Martin Scorsese: Shutter Island (2010)

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio are a good fit for each other, at this point.  Their best work appears well behind them, and they both now seem stuck in a perpetual state of late-term adolescence.  Scorsese has done his heavy lifting – Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), even Kundun (1997) and Bringing Out the Dead (1999) – and has been slumming comfortably in Hollywood bombast for the last decade.  Even at its most trivial, there’s never a feeling that his cinema craft has gotten beyond him, or that he’s lost his ability to see his way through visual dynamism with the easy hand of a consummate artist.  He hasn’t; his craftsmanship is now slick, effortless.  But that sort of filmmaking isn’t what made his best films work.  He’s always had greater effect when his stories, characters, and craft grappled grittily with tough, bony cuts of beef – he’s been trying pretty hard, but delectable fudge is just not on his menu as a master chef.  DiCaprio vanished into What’s Eating Gilbert Grape to an extent he’s never approximated since, surely as much a result of his limited star status in 1993 as his physical suitability to the teenage role.  He now looks half his age (he’s 35), and the harder he commits himself to a role, the more he comes across as a teenager exaggerating the behavior of a man.  I believe he puts his heart and brain into a film like Blood Diamond (2006), but I simply don’t accept him as a rough-souled Afrikaner diamond runner, or a world-weary suburban husband in Revolutionary Road (2008), or psychotic Howard Hughes in The Aviator (2004), or…or…  (But he could nail, at age 28, 16-year-old Frank Abagnale in Catch Me If You Can (2002).)  It’s not exactly his fault.  He’s just physically screwed.

A direct result of Scorsese’s and DiCaprio’s latter-day shortcomings, I think, Shutter Island is just silly.  It’s neither rich enough in texture nor oblique enough in narrative to bring to life its profoundly disturbing psychological core, and Laeta Kalogridis’ script is far too literal to be subconsciously frightening.  Instead, Scorsese has gone full-on camp in his tone, barreling through the opening passages with crippling impatience and a monstrously Hitchcockian score – which might have developed into pleasurably coked-out, high-strung excess if it weren’t for Scorsese’s unfailing inability to keep a certain humanity out of his filmmaking.  You bought Nick Nolte’s paranoia perhaps a little too well to take the insipid clumsiness of Cape Fear (1991), and, likewise, Scorsese’s commitment to trying very, very hard to make DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels a complex person instead of a melodramatic construct tempers the funky dread Shutter Island might have conjured.  Instead it feels blocky and insincere, wanting to be two incongruous films at once.

For all of its inherent vapidity, The Silence of the Lambs (1991) spent its opening sequences crafting a visual aesthetic that Jonathan Demme maintained rigorously throughout, a combination of roving perspective and unflinching stares (his actors often looking directly into the lens) that rooted the film in a constant and unsettling sense of exposure, of vulnerability.  He plays his actors like a piano, Jodie Foster in low key and Anthony Hopkins in high, the contrast between the two complementing the ham out of the core drama and leaving Ted Levine with all the room imaginable to let loose with Buffalo Bill’s near-caricatured psychoses.  The film is mathematical in its restraint; Demme wants nothing more than to creep the everloving shit out of you.  He’s certainly no less of a humanist than Scorsese – Melvin and Howard (1980) is more vibrant than anything Scorsese has ever done, which is not a judgment – but he recognizes that to make a thriller, your essential instincts as a dramatist need elicit nothing at all but effect.

It’s still hard to reconcile Scorsese’s obvious admiration for DiCaprio with his revelatory work with De Niro thirty-five years ago, as the two performers couldn’t be more divergent in their physical and vocal tactics.  But Scorsese keeps pushing DiCaprio through film after film of reasonable ambition, with a certain proclivity toward lead characters of operatic defect, and in his cover-boy prettiness and inability to convey adult emotions with an adult persona, DiCaprio’s youthful earnestness should be right for it.  Complexity doesn’t make opera fly; De Niro in his heyday would have smothered a Gangs of New York under the weight of skilled physical characterization.  Yet Scorsese still wants to speak to us, and however grand he aspires to be, he knows there’s nothing subtly articulate about opera.

Shame.  He leaps into Shutter Island with classical bravado, his swooping camera wide and appreciably glossless, his score (all of it preexisting, none original to the film) pounding inexorably toward…something creepy.  I suspect he knows how hollow the script really is, and is more than happy to get us through the cliched scenes of chatty exposition toward the twist that comes along somehow early, and develops too deeply.  The situation on Shutter Island is maniacally idiotic – I wonder whether Scorsese hoped that by diving into the twist at length he might spare us the arid thriller conceit of unraveling the twist in a sudden flash of revelation, and urge us to consider its psychological underpinnings instead, but the problem with a twist is that it’s designed to undo the world we think we know in the film.  Even Scorsese would need another half a film to give the revelation blistering psychic heat. And I don’t think he’d ever get past the absolutely bizarre behavior his supporting cast has had to perform, to justify it as anything but a storyteller’s glib trickery.

And…yes.  Fine.  I am too hard on Avatar, on Slumdog Millionaire, on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  These movies are not shooting for cosmic insight.  They want only to entertain, to lull you away from yourself for a couple hours with the promise of a good, light buzz.  And I believe that movies need only be taken as seriously as they take themselves.  But three years ago Scorsese got himself an Oscar for directing The Departed, the least lazy of this decade’s half dozen films of his, probably his most profitable, and a remake.  I wonder if he felt the odd pang of disappointment some of us experienced that evening, to see an honest-to-good-christ cinematic visionary placed in the pantheon of American film appreciation for a herky-jerky strip of celluloid pulp.  Not a bad film, not a great one – and that’s what he’s recognized for after all these years.  He used to go for a jog with lumpy but strident films like After Hours (1985) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).  The only thing he’s done in the past ten years that even hints at his prodigious dexterity with the medium is the documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005), about a man who, in his youth, made some of the most radically engaging art of his generation, and who settled into retirement age with, most recently, a cover album of Christmas songs.

Footnote: IMDB.com lists remakes of Kurosawa’s High and Low and Michael Haneke’s Caché (starring DiCaprio) under Scorsese’s “In Development” credits.  Nevermind the pointlessness of remaking great films; the tragedy of contemporary Scorsese outhacking Hollywood numbs the brain.

2 Responses to “Film: Martin Scorsese: Shutter Island (2010)”

  1. I am aghast at your delusion with Martin Scorsese. I always thought he was the hero of all directors you admired while in your formulative years. Who has changed – him or you?

    • he was. all the more reason to be critical of the silly trash he’s wasting our time with these days. it’s just depressing.

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