Monday, February 22, 2010

Horror In the Mind's Eye: SHUTTER ISLAND

For all of its bombast and all of its skillful employment of shivery tropes of classic horror films, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is one of the most quietly devastating films I’ve seen in quite a while. It’s a horror film that’s genuinely haunting, but not for any paranormal reasons. It’s scary because of its exploration of what humans are capable of doing to one another, about the fragile difference between sane and insane, about the psychology of trauma.

In 1954, U.S. Marshal, and World War II veteran, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives at Shutter Island’s Ashecliff Mental Institute a haunted man. He was one of the soldiers who liberated Dachau, vividly portrayed in flashbacks; one in particular consists of a long tracking shot through a massacre. His wife has recently died in a fire in their apartment building. He’s shaken and wounded, yet his duty presses him onward. He’s been assigned to investigate the disappearance of a patient, a woman who drowned her kids in the lake behind her house. She’s considered dangerous, as are most of the patients in the facility, so she was under careful supervision. No one is sure how she could have managed to escape from a locked room in a locked wing in a locked building on an island made up of forbidding architecture, rough terrain and steep cliffs.

Things don’t seem to be entirely truthful at the institute, however. Daniels begins to suspect that a deeper truth is being hidden. The characters in the film could be considered types, as this square-jawed detective with his square-jawed partner (Mark Ruffalo) square off against secretive doctors (Sir Ben Kingsley, calmly chilling, and Max von Sydow, looking more like Death than a knight), shifty-eyed orderlies, evasive nurses, and menacing guards (John Carroll Lynch, goofily threatening, and Ted Levine, very creepy). The characters, through the material, the acting, and the direction, appear totally believable and dimensional within the pulpy movie universe of the film.

Scorsese doesn’t wear his influences on his sleeve, at least as apparently as someone like Tarantino, but in this film he creates a precise and loving catalogue of movie creep-outs, starting with the stock cast of typical B-movie roles in an insane asylum that appears darkly threatening and alarmingly gothic. There are the eerie silences, sudden movements, long tracking shots, carefully controlled sound design, the swirling orchestral soundtrack, and slow building dread. Yet Scorsese doesn’t employ these to show off, but instead to create a seamless effect. This is B-movie material (based on a novel by Dennis Lehane and adapted by Laeta Kalogridis) turned A through superior craftsmanship.

The island and its inhabitants are frightening almost entirely on their own. From the opening shot of a ferry pulling closer to a dark mass of land, the film is already unsettling. Something is not right here. All of the characters seem jumpy, on edge. “It’s like they’re scared or something,” DiCaprio will say. We meet several inmates who are deeply scary psychological live-wires of frightening intensity or brutal honesty in the way they discuss their feelings and experiences. (It recalls the best of Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor). Robin Bartlett is particularly affecting as a woman who killed her abusive husband. Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson and Jackie Earle Haley make strong impacts as well.

It is Leonardo DiCaprio who gets to steal the show, though. He’s given a complex character with deep secrets and deeper traumas. He starts the movie as a confident detective, brash and sure of himself, yet as the investigation continues he gets pushed closer and closer to edge of sanity. Scorsese ties the feelings and thoughts of the audience to DiCaprio’s. As his paranoia increased so did mine, as the definitions of truth and sanity started to shift and curdle. It’s not easy to play going insane, or at least the possibility, without going too big, and yet Scorsese gives DiCaprio the room to play an unsettling trajectory without allowing him to overshadow the film. Though, to be fair, the glee with which Scorsese deploys the formal elements of the film, drawing sound and lighting and misé-en-scene into enjoyably creepy spectacle with increasing intensity, would be hard to overshadow. He has great support from his great longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker and his great longtime production designer Dante Ferretti to create a film of striking images and juxtapositions. It’s not exactly realism, but it never pushes too far into the realm of surrealism. This is psychological torment he’s after.

Scorsese injects into the proceedings extra shots of stylish freak-outs by way of shocking lucid dreams that combine flashback and nightmare into a potent mix. These are consistently entrancing and often disturbing, with strong colors, sharp splashes of blood, contorted corpses, urgent whispers, and disorienting edits and angles. There’s vivid imagery and haunting sights to be found here, especially when what you think you are seeing suddenly, or worse, slowly, becomes something much different. The nightmarish terrors are fantastically unsettling and bizarrely incantatory. I watched with shallow breath and wide eyes, drawn into the experience of these fascinating moments. It truly feels like being carried away into someone else’s nightmare.

One can’t help but see the influence of Hitchcock (as well as Polanski, Lynch, and Tourneur) in the film’s formal excellence and exactness (although there are hints of Kubrick there as well), but even more in the exploration of the darkness that lies within men’s souls, in the way it fearlessly picks away at its protagonist’s vulnerabilities and the source of his psychological trauma. Scorsese creates a masterfully controlled artifice that shocks in the unbelievable howling depths of genuine despair and grief at which it arrives. The ending, without spoiling it, is definitely a twist, but one that is teased and hinted throughout. To me, it feels just right. This is a twist ending that doesn’t diminish the film or turn it into a trick, but instead grows the clammy terror of emotions that the film evokes and allows the film to genuinely chill and quietly devastate.

No comments:

Post a Comment