Saturday, March 20, 2010

In Brief: SHUTTER ISLAND (2010)

It's been nearly two weeks since I saw the new Martin Scorsese film but I've had a hard time working up a review. In part that's because it's hard to describe without potentially spoiling the story, though by now I think everyone knows that at some point in the movie you're supposed to question the reality of what you're seeing, or at least the perspective through which you see it. It's based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, a cleverly conceived period piece that plays on our perception of period paranoia. It raises possibilities that keep you guessing all the way through, even after the film seems to settle on one particular version of events. Scorsese made a good choice directing this, since the psychological subjectivity in play is the best platform yet to ply his post-Casino trade. The public rejection of that film seems to have made it impossible for the director to make more films in his once-characteristic style, since Casino was condemned for being a do-over of Goodfellas. It was like telling John Ford he shouldn't make any more cavalry films, but Scorsese took the verdict to heart and resolved, after a Buddhist bildungsroman and some ambulance chasing, to become the new Michael Powell instead. The results of that transformation have been quite mixed. I like the visuals of Gangs of New York and the flamboyant performances despite its travesty of history. The Aviator had a few striking moments but overall left me asking "so?" The Departed is mostly effective but a cartoon compared to his classic films. Now at least Scorsese can let rip with lurid Fifties-ish gothic expressionism and cut loose from literal realism. At least I hope we're not meant to take anything we see literally. If reality is as one character describes it, in detail, towards the end, then it's one of the most ridiculous stories I've ever seen. But we don't have to take that person's word for it, however much the film hints or insists that we should. The nature of the tale lets us and Scorsese have it both ways. So there are beautiful, uncanny moments as well as a banal bit when Leo DiCaprio spreads his arms, gapes heavenward and yells, "NOOOOOO!!!!" in the middle of a Leave Her to Heaven homage. There are wonderful turns by Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow, while Mark Ruffalo is largely wasted as DiCaprio's straight man. There are times when you think this is the American Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and times when you can imagine it as an informal sequel to Inglourious Basterds. So is it a kind of counter-history, an account of a crazy man, or of a crazy director? My answer: sure... Give it a shot sometime.


Rev. Phantom said...

I love Scorsese, but I'm waiting for DVD for this one. I'll probably like it. I don't think the man has made a movie that I can say I hated.

The Vicar of VHS said...

I finished reading Lehane's book about a week ago, and I'm interested to see what Scorcese has done with it. Your comments in re: "At least I hope we're not supposed to take anything we see literally" give me a bit of hope, since near the end of the book I was thinking, "Aw, man, that's IT? No way, that's too ridiculous..." Anyway, I'll be seeing this soon, and your consideration puts me a little more open to it than I perhaps would have been based on the source material.

(FWIW, I really like Lehane's writing, and loved the story right up until the "Aw man!" moment.)