Creating Ghosts

“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.

51 Responses to “Creating Ghosts”

  1. The next one will be in 3D too…

    I still haven’t seen this film which has gotten fairly bad reviews(which is always an encouraging sign if you are a Scorsesean since all his best films have gotten weak reviews) but some people have defended it like Richard Brody of the New Yorker, who granted I disagree with a lot of the times, but like me, he realized ”Cassandra’s Dream” was major Woody Allen.

  2. in regard to bit parts:
    In the Ghost Writer, I felt the bit players, also gave strong performances, the best actually. Although Eli Wallach can’t be considered a bit player, he was barely recognizable.

    Its almost like the directors are star bored rather star struck, and just get more pleasure working with “working”actors. Its away for them (Scorcese and Polanski) to escape their own star status.

  3. I think it’s also a way for them to produce surprises which may not be possible if you’re dealing with DiCaprio or McGregor. Of course, with a star persona, you can shock an audience by departing from it, but decent as they are, I don’t know if Leo and Ewen have that capacity.

    I’d say this one is more coherent than Gangs (it doesn’t feel like a longer film compressed) and more inventive than Departed (which mainly deployed fast cutting throughout). But the ending does kind of turn it into, as Fiona put it, a shaggy dog story.

    I find the VERY end quite touching, and even subtle, after all the overexplained stuff. You actually have to think about it, which is nice.

    The movie ended, and a guy behind me asked his friend, “So… was the whole thing a dream?” Proof that however hard you exposit, not everybody will get it anyhow.

  4. I was stunningly disappointed by this one. I figured out the “twist” in the opening 5 to 15 minutes. A certain performance drew attention to itself like a lighthouse, if you’ll excuse the wording, along with the looks across the table in the kitchen scene. It had its moments but it all seemed a bit obvious to me. Cinematography, design and most of the performances were great, but the big reveal was just far too obvious to me.

  5. M Night Shyamalan, of all people, has pondered why people focus on endings so much. The answer is of course obvious: with the kind of endings he does, which Shutter Island also has, the whole movie is supposed to be reconfigured by the end scenes, so you look back on preceding scenes through a new lens created by the final revelations. If the ending is disappointing, it doesn’t spoil the EXPERIENCE of the film, but it does spoil your MEMORY of it.

    Perhaps part of the problem here is that the fake stories constructed during the course of the film are bigger and more exciting than the true story?

    Also, if you’ve guessed the end, all the intriguing theories thrown out during the film read as time-wasting BS.

  6. RoseMurasaki Says:


    I reckon DiCaprio gave too “good” (for good read overstated) a performance, in that you’re aware of the instability of his character from the very first scene, and each subsequent scene merely reaffirms your initial assessment of his troubled psyche. IMO, a more wooden, les capable actor (I’m thinking along the lines of Peter Breck in Shock Corridor) would have lent the material a more ambiguous quality. Or DiCaprio should have swapped roles with Ruffalo, who managed to present all the clues to his real nature while being much more subtle about it. Though I’m not in favour of entire screenplays constructed around the “gotcha!” twist, I do like being kept off balance and not knowing what’s going on.

    Plus Scorsese falls into the trap of all A-list directors when they tackle the horror genre (cf Mike Nichols, Francis Coppola etc) – they’re so busy ladling on the homages and references and thinking no-one before them has spotted the subtext, they forget what makes the story tick. The results can be enjoyable (as they are in Shutter Island) but the story fails to grab you on a visceral level and certainly comes nowhere near to scaring you. It’s clear Scorsese isn’t really interested in the nuts and bolts of storytelling (compare Infernal Affairs with The Departed); I had the impression he was more interested in DiCaprio’s performance than anything else.

    Of course the central scam – the entire staff and inmates of the asylum involved ina Sting-like charade in an attempt to cure a single patient – is so preposterous and logistically & ergonomically absurd it does afterwards make you wonder whether the whole film is some sort of fever dream from the PoV of DiCaprio’s character, and that actually maybe he’s just shut in his cell all the time. Either that, or this method of medical treatment for deserves a place up there with the Crimes of Gavin Elster.

  7. Rose, your comment about De Caprio’s performance is exactly what got me. That, coupled with the fact that Ruffalo is his new partner, made me suspicious form the very start.

    Ah well.

  8. RoseMurasaki Says:

    I took so long to write that last comment that all the interim comments appeared in the meantime…

    But interesting to compare Shutter Island with The Ghost, because Polanski, I feel, IS interested in the nuts and bolts of storytelling, and his film sucked me into its world in a way Scorsese’s didn’t. More I think about it, more The Ghost seems like an example of film-storytelling in its purest film. No shot or effect just for the sake of it – everything is at the service of the story. The fact that many perceive Harris’s story itself as not very good doesn’t worry me – it’s no worse than, say, Atonement or The Reader, just not as ecstatically reviewed by literary critics.

  9. Polanski is a thriller director from way back, and he has what one might call, with understatement, a sure hand. Scorsese’s direction of Cape Fear seemed impatient to proceed to the next baroque effect with indecent haste, forgetting about suspense. He called The Departed his first film with a plot, which isn’t remotely true, but I guess it was his first film where the plot was foregrounded ahead of character and setting. This movie strikes a fairly good balance between the three, I’d say, except it fails to sell its silly plot or pull off the surprise.

  10. I was disappointed. The rainstorm is teriffic, and the cast quite up for anything — especially Max Von Sydow who must be 5 million years old by now. But the “reveal” didn’t inspire anything more than a shrug in me. The “B’ movies it reminds me of aren’t Lewton’s but rather moldy Edgar Wallace adptations.

  11. A friend once explained that we all think Max is older than he is because his old age makeup, and performance, in The Exorcist, is so damned good. But that excuse is wearing thin now, he really is older than God.

    The reveal is unimpressive, I think we can agree, partly because of its unlikeliness. Is this a recurring problem with Dennis Lehane’s books? Fiona saw Mystic River and found Marcia Gay Harden’s character implausible…

  12. David Boxwell Says:

    Best thing about SI is the superb compilation of ultramodernist music assembled by Robertson. And stay for the end credits, over which the Max Richter-Dinah Washington remix plays–it will break your heart.

  13. Tony Williams Says:

    I was also disappointed but found the film reactionary in nature. It raises key issues such as Allied atrocities in WW2, post-war appropriation of Nazis and their techniques, as well as McCarthy era experiments in brainwashing. But then it reduced it to a bad dream on the part of Leonardo with the ending equivalent to that awful US remake of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI with Glynis Johns. As for blaming the wife and mother for bringing about Leonardo’s mental collapse – well!

  14. The fact that the movie raises these issues did suggest to me that they were matters of real concern… but ultimately everything is sublimated to the personal story, which is arguably a familiar Scorsese trope (see Gangs and The Aviator and maybe even Taxi Driver).

    The idea that madness is contagious is introduced early on as an outre notion, but by the end the movie does seem to basically endorse it. That’s pretty offensive and inaccurate. An interesting idea for a horror movie, maybe, but this is supposedly a real-world story.

    Has anybody read the book? I think the whole thing would make a lot more sense if DiCaprio’s character had killed his whole family.

  15. He didn’t? I got the impression that he did.

  16. He says, and everybody in the film seems to agree, that she killed the kids and he killed her. And that it was somewhat his fault that he didn’t notice her losing her mind because he was too busy drinking and working.

  17. Oh.

    Well it changes very little.

  18. I think it’s a subtle diff that could improve the film. Your reading would make him a monster, as he says he is, and his desire to be lobotomized would make more sense. The interp where he’s innocent of everything except killing his wife, who after all had just drowned their three kids, leaves him with less to be punished for. Some would say nothing, since a killing under those circumstances would probably qualify as justifiable homicide.

  19. Tony Williams Says:

    Whatever Leonardo did, it still comes down to an individual psychodrama that negates the social issues the film touches upon. Here DePalma’s SISTERS is more radical since Salt’s “forgetfulness” is clearly the result of institutional brainwashing rather than a one-off family psychodrama. Yes David E. he is responsible as you say.

  20. Yes, I think that’s the problem. In dramatic terms the big conspiracies are more interesting and powerful and would make a better story, and in political terms the film cops out of actually saying anything about the real horrors it checks off on its fingers. So all that graphic Dachau imagery just becomes gothic window dressing.

  21. It’s ALL Gothic Window Dressing. Very elaborate. Very beautifully detailed. But in the last analysis it pivots on a gimmick — HE’S the man he’s looking for. That would be just fine were the script by Borges or Biouy-Casares. But it’s not.

  22. I saw this and THE GHOST WRITER on the same day. Given my most recent encounters with Scorsese (I haven’t liked a film of his, unequivocally, since the 1990s) and Polanski (whose films are actually growing in my estimation – to include, to my surprise and delight – THE NINTH GATE), I had a sneaking suspicion that TGW would mean more to me than SI. And I was right.

    TGW seemed to me just right – unlike SI, which takes what is essentially dime-novel bullshit and stretches it out to a scale roughly proportionate to Scorsese’s post-2000 work, TGW seems to be driving in the opposite direction, finding the Polanski movie in the small spaces of Robert Harris’s beach reading.

    The best way to honor Lewton is, of course, to watch his films. His distinctive atmosphere has yet to be duplicated elsewhere.

  23. Jaime>>Its really a matter of opinion, but even though I liked The Ghost Wrter, I found only flleeting moments of “Polanski” in it.
    For example, after the writer’s room is broken into in the hotel, he goes down to the empty, darkened hotel lobby. There’s some light reflecting off the leather and polished wood of the faux maritime furniture, captain’s chairs and the llike, giving the room a ghoulish presence. No one is at the check out desk; the writer calls out and out steps a girl, half asleep, dressed in a wench’s outfit. “There’s no one else checked in” she says.

    Its the mix of humor and horror that makes it “Polanski” for me.

  24. SPOILERS – So it’s a combination of Oedipus Rex (“HE’s the man he’s looking for”) and Caligari (the doctor(s) who appear evil are actually kind men seen that way by a deluded patient – this even more like SI in the 1962 Caligari than in the 1919 one), and anyone familiar with those works is going to see the ending telegraphed a mile away. No problem for me – I give Scorsese points for not cheating (e.g., which you could accuse him of if he had made Leo too *normal*).

    More points to Scorsese for making a stylish film that is unapologetically commercial and unapologetically a horror movie and yet … extremely personal. The theme of denying essential truths about oneself is central to so many of his films. Is Raging Bull the one that opens with that Biblical quote, “I was blind, but now I see”? Totally appropriate to Shutter Island. (Even if, as in Shock Corridor, the moment of sanity doesn’t last.)

    I liked it very much, my only real problem with it being the Dachau sequences which seemed gratuitous – overweighted with significance.

  25. Raging Bull ends with that quote. I guess Last Temptation deals with that kind of denial too, with Christ trying to escape his divine side.

    I’ll see the movie again at some point, but I did wonder if Scorsese didn’t cheat occasionally. I couldn’t quite work out what Ruffalo was up to in the crypt when he persuades Leo he’s walked into a trap, a speech that seems designed to deepen the patient’s paranoia and violence. That’s a very good scene, but I wish what Ruff was saying were all true.

    I have to wait a week or so for The Ghost (as they’re calling it here), so no spoilers please! Am psyched to see it. The Ninth Gate is jammed with Polanski vintage moments, but the story is curiously pointless and unaffecting, with an unappealing protag and no real interest in whatever’s supposed to be at stake. But I enjoy the style and grotesque flourishes enormously. People saying that the plot isn’t very good in the new one make me think of 9G, which worries me a little.

    But I will enjoy seeing RP stick it to the man, and Brosnan seems good casting – more formidable than the real Blair, which may help in thriller terms.

  26. I saw this the very evening after I’d finally got round to watching “The Most Dangerous Game” and the parallels were delightful. I LOVED that green-screened two-shot. And I LOVED the choppy editing, and I LOVED the sound (as good as anything in Lynch). I even LOVED the feeling of a pointless remake that hung over this until the godawful twist (which it must be said consolidated that feeling). It served to remind me just how distant the fifties are, how much nearer to the thirties: Ben Kingsley reprising Lugosi’s inscrutable hospitality, Von Sydow reprising Karloff’s stoic cruelty (and bearing a very strong resemblance I thought to the cartoon teacher from The Wall… he looked wonderful). Okay the fact that Leonardo Di Caprio still looks like a child in a hat is a bit of a problem, but not as big a problem as the twist. I have honestly recommended to everyone they get up and leave the moment Kingsley says “Honey why are you all wet?” and just roll the credits in their head. Then I think they’ll have seen something like a masterpiece. (Maybe they could also snooze during the exposition in the cave, although I liked the nurse’s framing by fire.)

  27. (Doctor, not nurse. Sorry.)

  28. Great review.

    As much as I found this film disjointed and predictable at times, I can forgive all the things that I would criticize in a more cohesive film. The Nazi side-plot, the “arsonist” delusion, the escaping prisoner… as you said, these were all non-essential tangents, and yet, they’re also pivot points in Teddy’s disturbed psychology. When you can’t tell the difference between the trivial and the significant, and your personal history is misconstrued as an immediate, invisible threat — isn’t this a big part of paranoid delusion?

    That’s where this movie succeeded for me… in its frenetic pacing, and its insistence on denying access to any privileged narrative, at least until the twist, which was a little annoying, but at least provided some semblance of a conclusion. And even this “resolution” wasn’t completely satisfying, nor should it be.

    The only thing I didn’t like was the anagram thing, which is a bit too DaVinci Code for my taste. The whole ending would have bothered me if I’d spent the movie second-guessing it and hoping to be surprised by it, but I wasn’t.

  29. The anagram would have at least made sense in the book, but in the movie we never get to see the weird name Laeddis written down, so it’s a bit of a cheat to trumpet it as a clue that pays off.

    Jesse, I agree in principal that the mixing in of different conspiracies is a realistic symptom of insanity, particularly some forms of schizophrenia. But then, the idea that Leo has been driven into this state by an unbearable trauma, which he has to remember, Marnie-style, isn’t very realistic at all.

    I do think the “closed narrative” is sustained to the end — we only learn the truth when Leo does. The problem, as Simon says, is with the nature of that truth (and the lumbering way it’s revealed).

    I enjoyed all the atmospherics too, but the literal-minded plod of the storyline stops it evoking mysteries and nightmares the way Lewton or Ulmer do.

  30. Ah but it did – I now remember – very much evoke how it felt to be ten days into a stay in a nightingale ward and realise you’re in the middle of a psychotic episode as a result of what you’ve been given because they don’t actually know what’s wrong with you. That makes for a very specific audience demographic though, I know.

  31. It might tend to limit the audience a bit. And we’re no strangers to confusion here at Shadowplay. To us it smacked mostly of plot contrivance and less of actual psychological disorder, as it is experienced in the real world. But there are all kinds of disorders, and it may ring truer to some.

  32. Hell, I *did* slumber during the cliff scenes, and managed to wake up in time for the cave scenes — but then again, I’d read the book, so the highlights for me were solely in the supporting perfs, where folks like Bartlett and Levine managed to shine. For Levine, that one scene capitulated 20 years of work, from SILENCE OF THE LAMBS to MONK, in one FLY-like character synthesis. If Miss Rainier can get a supporting Oscar nod for one scene, so can he, by jing….

  33. It would be lovely to think so!

  34. I have to say I genuinely loved this – awful exposition scenes and all. I’ve been waiting for Scorsese to wake up from his post-Gangs of New York walking slumber for years, and this film shows all the signs of a man who is hard at work building something massive, beautiful and almost completely pointless – the termite-turned-white-elephant art that’s been Scorsese’s specialty since his purple patch ended with King of Comedy.

    From about half way through (at least once I got over the fact that Leo’s tie was more charismatic and worthy of attention than his face) the sentence that kept going thru my head was “This film has the bones of a thriller clothed in the flesh of the avant-garde.” It really seemed as though Lehane’s hokey b-picture notions were only useful to Scorsese as a way to do what he loves to do – create massively unsettling, sometimes very moving, disjuntures of sound and image, taking the basic tools of cinema and throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. Story isn’t important except as a string on which to thread stunning moments (the Bridget Kearns interview, the Warden’s wonderfully terrifying speech, the head-spinning paranoia of the mausoleum scene). Some of these don’t make sense in the long run (would a mental patient like Kearns really be trusted to take part in a ‘role play’? Why not take it the whole Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether hog, and have all the inmates played by the staff?).

    I suppose the thing is, this felt like an anthology of everything Scorsese’s ever wanted to do in the Gothic genre, and if the story doesn’t fit his desires, he throws story out in pursuit of the moment. I love that, it gives the film (until the final twenty minutes anyway) a feeling of true delirium that’s very rare.

    And as DC points out, the final line of the film is heartbreakingly beautiful, and resonated with me all the long way home after the screening. I really don’t feel ‘got to’ by that many films these days, and often think I’ve had it with the current cinema. Despite its considerable flaws, when I walked out of Shutter Island I felt like I had seen a real movie, made with passion and craft. I’ll settle for that.

  35. Well, you and Simon could be onto something. I’d definitely give this another look at some point, and either tick off the clues to the final “revelation” or enjoy the implausibilities. The audio-visual lushness and discombobulation were impressive the first time and I’m sure they’ll continue to yield pleasures.

    With this and Cape Fear there may be a case for Scorsese as a fascinating failure in the world of the thriller, creating surreal, self-destructive machines in movie form, memorable for their hallucinatory moments of crisis (DeNiro walking into the camera with his chin, in front of a Raiders of the Lost Ark milk-in-water sky) even as they jettison suspense and plausibility.

  36. Yeah, I don’t really go to Scorsese for suspense or plausibility – a film like Casino (which I hated on release and grew to love later) is an extraordinary exercise in denying the audience the pleasures it came in search of. Like Sirk, I think Scorsese is far more rooted in experimental film than he’s ever given credit for.

    Another thought – I’m often troubled by the love affair with violent men that lies at the heart of many Scorsese films (Gangs is a notable offender). Shutter Island seems to me to be about telling the story of a man of violence, who is desperately attempting to renounce or exorcise his own violence, to the point where he would rather have his identity forcibly nullified if that’s what it takes to stop him from hurting anybody else – which is a real step forward from the glorification of the likes of Bill the Butcher.

  37. I still think that’d be stronger if his violence were more problematic. But maybe the fact that he beats people up due to delusions that make such behaviour seem wholly justifiable to him, is part of the point. His action movie heroics are part of his psychopathology. Possibly.

  38. “His action movie heroics are part of his psychopathology.” Absolutely. Otherwise, why does he characterise himself as a monster at the film’s end? I’m in favour of the reading that he killed his kids himself, as it happens. It just seems much more believable than the cover story he tells himself. The whole thing has the feel of a Jim Thompson novel where the bad deeds you can see are just a mask for the real story, too terrible for the narrator even to admit to himself. I wish Scorsese had made The Killer Inside Me instead of the atrocious Winterbum.

  39. Autumnbottom obviously regards himself as a good all-rounder, someone who can turn his hand to anything. Whereas it’s transparently obvious to the rest of us that he can’t do ANYTHING.

    Even Frears, an unlikely choice for The Grifters, would be much better suited. Still, maybe somebody else can make a Thompson novel if this one hits.

    Interesting nobody’s tackled Woolrich for NINE YEARS. Seems incredible.

  40. Hard to think of a cinematic equivalent for Thompson’s deliriums, the way his protagonists hide themselves from themselves so effectively until (sometimes after) the final chapter. Abel Ferrara? Too singlemindedly literal. De Palma? Too tricksy. God knows Frears and Winterbuttocks are far too pedestrian for it. The Stacy Keach/Burt Kennedy film is interesting to watch mostly because they manfully tackle material that they haven’t really got a handle on – so when it goes out of control it REALLY feels off the rails.

  41. I just saw this film and well I can’t say much after seeing it just once. But there are two points…

    The Dachau sequences are deemed gratuitous by people on general principle but it’s a very key theme in the film. The film is set in an universe of a victorious nation that liberated people from European monsters and the film shows the complete hollowness of that “victory” even the monstrousness in it. And the main moment in the flashbacks is when Teddy and his squad massacre the Nazi POWs at the camp(done in a long take worthy of Fuller or Rossellini). And that one scene completely destroys Tarantino’s IB showing the total fantasy of justified revenge for what it is. The metaphor of that violence which is the defining images of the Second World War is that it carries over into another defining image the American suburban family.

    James Naremore wrote about how the original gas chamber ending of Double Indemnity would have yoked the consumerist landscape of suburban LA with the memory of the death camps(in MORE THAN NIGHT). Scorsese does something similar only he goes further and puts the cinematic landscape of post-world war Hollywood under the scope, basically Leo DiCaprio’s cop comes from the universe of Dana Andrews and James Stewart. But over and above all is the horrible tragedy of that family slaughter.

    It IS a shaggy dog story(but then I have never had problems with that) but it has to be because all those fictional constructs made by the movies were built to hint and repress the real dangers of civilization.

  42. Glad you got a chance to see it!

    The tracking shot I think is a nod to Lewis Milestone and All Quiet.

    I like the idea of the death camps forming a background to and seeping into the domestic scenes, as war traumas affected a generation of husbands and fathers… I just didn’t think it justified the explicit reconstruction of heaps of corpses etc. Since it’s part of the shaggy dog story which can easily be removed, it doesn’t seem justified by anything that serious. It evokes something which obviously IS serious to lend weight to the story, which seems to me somewhat reprehensible.

    Recently had an argument with a director about whether a project should contain child abuse, and I argued strongly that the film was not serious enough to justify introducing something so real-life and horrific. Feel the same here.

  43. The death camps as opposed to the Cold War paranoia which Teddy invokes repeatedly is of real import and consequence in the film. The Cold War bits are part of the red herrings not the death camps. His character really was there at liberation and that massacre of Nazi POWs by American soldiers actually happened and the way the film touches on it is remarkably accurate. Ben Kingsley’s character remarks that his character was at Dachau but he can’t know if he actually killed anyone or not, the reason is that the US Military suppressed that incident and didn’t pursue it and the full details were only declassified in the 90s, so Teddy has to live with the knowledge of committing violence that is completely forgotten and ignored and then continue his suburban existence. So I would say showing it, within his memories and from his point of view, is extremely important to the story and our understanding of his story and his suffering.

    The general theme of the film is what kind of civilization was created after the war which was a theme in many serious art and genre films of the 50s. Scorsese uses those reference – Fuller, Bergman, Rossellini to address that and the end answer is needless to say extremely bleak.

  44. But if the cold war stuff is a red herring, then the film is really a personal story about one man, and his secret is basically a personal story about him and his family, which doesn’t require the other stuff to make sense. And in fact the society portrayed turns out to be a rather benevolent one, with lobotomy resorted to only in the most extreme cases (which wasn’t the case: they were ice-picking inmates by the thousand).

    Hearing that the Dachau incident is true interests me, but since the film doesn’t confirm this, it seemed to be having its cake and eating it, inserting a striking scene without offering any view on it.

  45. ————————–
    But if the cold war stuff is a red herring, then the film is really a personal story about one man, and his secret is basically a personal story about him and his family, which doesn’t require the other stuff to make sense.

    But this one man is a war veteran in a society that has decided that it has won the war and all’s right in the world. His social experiences matter a great deal and his mental trauma stems from that.

    And in fact the society portrayed turns out to be a rather benevolent one, with lobotomy resorted to only in the most extreme cases

    Actually Ben Kingsley makes it clear that his ideas are unpopular and that Teddy is basically his great shot to prove that his way of treating patients is better than lobotomy. And the warden played by Ted Levine(in a great performance) makes it pretty clear what he thinks will work as does Max von Sydow. Kingsley and Ruffalo are fighting a losing battle and Teddy essentially betrays them.

    Hearing that the Dachau incident is true interests me,

    …inserting a striking scene without offering any view on it.

    But Scorsese has always done that, he’s never been interested in explanations.

  46. I like that Scorsese doesn’t force conclusions on us, but by allowing Kingsley to cast doubt upon the massacre, he robs it of historic import unless you happen to know it’s true. The line is quite strange: “We can’t know if there was a massacre” or something, implying I guess “because the documents are sealed and we won’t be allowed to read them until the 90s,” a slightly ahistoric meaning. In that situiation the Doc would have really said “There’s no record of that situation ever happening,” which would be even more problematic for an uninformed viewer like me, I guess.


    In fact, given the facts as they’re known to the Doc, I think they’d have assumed that DiCaprio killed his entire family, since they only have his word that his wife killed the kids. And he’s crazy.

    Psychiatrically, the film uses the idea of traumatic memories being suppressed, which we few shrinks any longer believe happens, so that makes it even more trivial to me. It works on the level of metaphor, maybe, but no part of it is really true to life. And the idea that adult traumas can cause insanity is highly doubtful.

  47. I only just saw this – am home with a baby so it’s a year of no cinema but plenty of DVDs… I certainly loved the texture, and it was surprisingly gripping…

    The thing I’ve been pondering is that final shot of the lighthouse… Which I took to mean ‘folks, he may have been wrong about some things, but there IS something a bit fishy about having offices (surgeries?) on a lighthouse that’s cut off from the mainland’.

    I then wondered whether a reading of the film was possible that he really WAS a Marshall, who had lost his wife and kids, and when to Shutter Island to investigate wrongdoing, and that they had held him there for years, trying to convince him that he was just a guy who had killed his wife… But I’m not sure that interpretation quite works (the anagrams?).

  48. My version, which I’ve heard a few people share (massive spoilers, obviously): the lighthouse was indeed being used for lobotomies. Kingsley’s been trying to move away from that brand of medicine. DiCaprio, guilt-stricken at having killed his wife, pretends to be still mad so they’ll lobotomize him: he prefers oblivion to existence as “a monster.”

    So the lighthouse certainly does have a sinister side.

    I like your reading and would probably like the film more if it balanced a couple of options like that — I think the facts only fully support a rather closed reading.

  49. That’s the flaw with the book and film: Lehane’s conspiracy is more gripping and resonant than the “reality” of the twist. In both cases, I was disappointed of so elaborate an explanation built by a madman who didn’t seem that intellectual or worldly.

  50. Well, I guess as a former soldier and homicide cop, he IS worldly, we just have a job projecting all that on to DiCaprio, who still has a kind of naivety about him.

    But I absolutely agree that the twist is a let-down since it leads us to a less interesting place: and DiCaprio’s crime isn’t even so awful. The final final twist redeems that a bit, in that it’s at least interesting, and I like the final shot of the lighthouse. There was the potential for a real nightmare vision of the future/our present being projected, and that shot still carries some of that weight, but the role-play twist has done its best to kill the political angle.

  51. And now, something completely different.
    Asylums are there to cure and heal people in the first place.
    But why do we want to cure people?
    To let them work, and make money for the system.
    If you’re a little different, or you have some strange ideas, and you don’t fit in to the (slave) system, you are mentally ill to them.
    You get automaticaly depressed, because the won’t give you 1 centimeter of space.
    Then they got what they want.
    And it starts, you’re road to hell, began.
    No concentrationcamps anymore?
    They don’t use straightjackets, lobotomies, or shock therapy anymore?
    Well, now they shoot you down.
    Or medtime, you down.
    Then you are out of balance.
    Until you get weaker and weaker, next thing is, you can’t do anything anymore, and then you get tyred, tyred, and more tyred, and then you eventually die.
    And it doesn’t even matter, what age you are, rage, or if you are ritch, or poor.
    It’s bizar.
    How in the hell can they cure you, if they don’t even know how the mind and the spirit works. (your soul)
    And you know why?
    You cost money.
    Because the system, works in a curtain way, and they will not change.
    Unless we all protest for hour human rights.
    For God given Freedom!
    And it’s really everywhere today.
    It’s in hour food, coffee, sodas, and alcohol that make’s you fatter, and fatter, and slowly sicker.
    Or you get really mentally ill, you get ar heartattack, or a desease.
    Today,they can spy, and beam you, when ever, and where ever you go.
    That is the world we live in today people.
    Cool huh?
    God bless us all, and eat real fresh food.
    Lot’s of vegetables, fruits, brown bread, and drink spa, or water.
    That’s the best thing you can do.
    (By the way, not only in the USA, but in the whole world.)

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