“It’s not hard to start a lunatic asylum, all you need is an empty room and the right kind of people.”
So says Eugene Pallette in MY MAN GODFREY, but creating lunatic asylums on film has often been a complicated and highly artistic task, from THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI on (is CALIGARI the first?). (What follows is hopefully spoiler-free, even though I must be one of the last to see and write about this film.)
Dante Ferretti’s designs for the new Scorsese, SHUTTER ISLAND, are often stunning — the marriage of sets with Robert Richardson’s lambent cinematography is a thing of beauty (I particularly loved, and wanted more of, the highly reflective ceilings in the night scenes). Although one wonders about the therapeutic value of that Civil Ward fort, a nightmare of iron lattices more calculated to derange the mind than soothe it. But this is a Gothic fantasy as well as a realistic psychodrama, and mismatches like that are practically inevitable.
Opening titles seem to evoke KING KONG, especially as we open on a steamer chugging through fog. 40s horror producer Val Lewton is Scorsese’s big stated reference on this one, so the opening seems apt, as the ship footage from KONG was repurposed for Lewton and Robson’s THE GHOST SHIP. And the opening dialogue between DiCaprio and Ruffalo is as awkward as the shipboard meet cute in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, though in a different way. Here it’s the feeling of green screened background (well-done but still somehow perceptible), the odd mismatches in the editing (Scorsese and Schoonmaker frequently ignore continuity problems but here it’s tricky to see what’s to be gained by some of the rough edges) and the blatant non sequiturs — “Got a girl?” asks Ruffalo, apropos of nothing, although this is one point which does make sense in light of the final revelations.
How fooled were you? It seems to me that anybody with a grounding in storytelling — i.e. anybody who’s heard the term “foreshadowing” — would be asking questions in Scene 1, especially if they’ve heard the hints that an M Night Smymalan humdinger of a final twist is in the offing. And those questions would lead you directly to the right solution, or a big part of it. To their credits, Scorsese, screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis and original author Dennis Lehane throw enough red herrings into the soup to keep us off-balance. Unfortunately, some of the sidetracks we’re invited down seem more promising than the film’s final revelation turns out to be.
Ben Kingsley is Basil Exposition in this one, wheeled on to set up the story at length, and again to explain what happened at the end. We also get a lengthy flashback to help him, although it strikes me that in the name of efficiency alone, it could usefully had substituted for some of his unwieldy spiel. Max Von Sydow is a welcome presence but little more, in plot terms, although maybe it was his being there that made me think that whenever anybody gets around to making FLASH GORDON again, they must and should get Ben Kingsley to don Max’s mantle as Emperor Ming.
Small roles are filled by names like Elias Koteas, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson and Jackie Earle Haley, who are very pleasing, but even more satisfying are the less famous players, because they’re more surprising — Ted Levine, who gets a brilliantly strange dialogue in a jeep, my favourite creeping freakout scene in the movie, and Robin Bartlett as the axe-murderess, are great value.
The whole thing is, as Fiona says, a shaggy dog story, which is part of my big problem with it. The movie touches on some of the twentieth century’s most compelling nightmares — Dachau, HUAC, psychiatric abuses — and most of this material is a shoal of red herrings (I won’t say which bits aren’t), raising questions of taste. The film’s true subject is, I guess, madness, a universal fear which doesn’t need this sociopolitical smokescreen for resonance: the holocaust reduced to the status of colourful pageant. Finally, a spoiler — you’ll have to highlight the next bit to read it:
As in THE AVIATOR, it seems to me the story would actually be stronger with a more flawed protagonist. When we learn what Leo’s crime is, it’s pretty understandable, and his estimation of himself as a “monster” seems questionable. If he really did find he’d done something truly terrible, it would be more shocking, but we’d still be on his side because the crime was committed in the past by a version of himself he doesn’t even remember.
In plausibility terms, the idea of Leo becoming completely delusional after committing the crime is highly unlikely, and we have the strange situation of two potential insane murderers in the same household, unknown to each other. A trivial but still niggling issue is that we have only Leo’s word that he didn’t kill his kids. When the authorities showed up and found the whole family dead, and Leo insane, wouldn’t the natural assumption be that Leo killed everybody?
To end: Scorsese has now made three features that seem very much like work-for-hire, although one can’t fault the effort and imagination he puts into them. He hasn’t worked with any of his regular screenwriting cronies since GANGS OF NEW YORK, and he’s not getting any younger. I’ll certainly continue to see his films, but it feels more like his directing is a secondary career compared to his invaluable work in film restoration. On the other hand, I hear Ben Kingsley is playing Georges Melies in the next one…
The comments section, BTW, will be full of spoilers… best avoid if you haven’t seen the movie.