Psychiatrist's notes: Spoiler free and not a danger to the public
The Hollywood big guns has always had a somewhat ambivalent attitude to genre cinema, and to horror in particular - in general, it is seen as something for low budgets and small studios to produce. And for a fan of the macabre this relationship is equally ambiguous; on one hand, you wish there were bigger budgets available and that some of the better film makers currently working would attempt something in the genre, but when they do, you often wish they hadn’t bothered.
A prime example would be Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula; when this was announced we all got excited imagining it was going to be the classic tale of the undead lord told with the artistry and intensity of The Godfather - A Countalypse Now perhaps. But what did we really get? A load of old tat, that’s what. Entertainingly batty old tat, I’ll grant you, but a popcorn flick any journeyman director could have helmed. Coppola clearly didn’t approach the subject matter as one of his ‘proper’ films and I suspect why the movie went out under its mendacious title.
So then when I heard Martin Scorsese was to be helming a psychological gothic horror, I was a little concerned whether we were going see one of the great contemporary American directors deliver a slice of tosh that rather than dousing audiences in terror would splatter his own face with egg. But at the same time, I was very hopeful for the project as Scorsese is a very reliable director who understands the importance of story and has not been content to rest on his laurels and stuff himself up his own overly lauded arse like certain other highly feted auteurs I could mention coughs *Coppola*.
But more importantly, I knew that Scorsese was a huge admirer of Val Lewton. Now for those of you who don’t know, Lewton was a producer of a string of quickie horror features that are now regarded as classics. Although his studio bosses at RKO, would have been more than content with typical B movie fodder full of cardboard castles and knock-off monsters, Lewton had other ideas. He may have been limited by the budgets he was given, but Lewton strongly felt that a lack of time and resources didn’t mean he had to skimp on quality and intelligence as well.
And although Hitchcock has been widely bandied about as an inspiration, and indeed there are many superficial similarities with Hitch’s suspense pictures, the prevailing flavour of Shutter Island is very Lewtonian. While Hitchcock’s work frequently embraced psychological themes, it was often with a criminological emphasis, providing his movies with a gritty true crime edge. However in a Lewton picture, it is the internal conflicts in traumatised psyches that generate atmospheric onscreen terrors; his work is often described as ‘gothic noir’ – a term that fits Shutter Island like a glove.
Based on a novel by respected crime author Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island is a period piece, set in the 1950s, concerning US Marshall Teddy Daniels who is sent to investigate the escape of a prisoner from Ashecliffe Hospital, a high security facility for the criminally insane. It is an age old mystery set up - the missing prisoner, a highly deranged multiple murderess, has vanished from a seemingly locked room. But in a similarly classic plot development, we discover that Teddy has equally enigmatic reasons for accepting this case on the titular isle.
Now although I am keeping this review spoiler free, I will say that if you are a fan of mysteries, familiar with horror, or are even just a tad movie literate, you will probably figure out where the mystery is leading by the halfway mark. In fact, from a quick sampling of other reviews, there is one scene in particular where the penny drops for most people. But Shutter Island is so densely layered, although you may guess the general shape of the ending, I’ll bet there will a great many of the specifics you won’t deduce before the denouement.
And I would stress that this is not a film that lives or dies on the strength of a twist ending – you know, the kind of film whose plotting is purely a game of bluff and counter bluff until it reveals its hand in the last five minutes and it turns out that *gasp!* it was all in the future on a spaceship or some such nonsense. It’s Scorsese we are talking about here after all, not M Night Bloody Shyamalan!
For all the mysteries and riddles Shutter Island presents you with, Scorsese is also giving you an absorbing narrative with real characterisations, some honest-to-god real intellectual themes throughout and most importantly genuine emotional weight. And because of this, unlike many flicks with twist, Shutter Island will repay repeated visits.
Shutter Island is quite simply beautifully crafted on every level. Aside from its masterful plotting, the performances are second to none. Old hands Max von Sydow and Ben Kingsley actually put in some proper performances, rather the retirement fund coasting old thesps are prone to when appearing in a movie that has a whiff of genre about it, while Mark Ruffalo and Michelle Williams showcase their acting chops in roles that require some very carefully measured performances. And there is excellent support throughout from a cast that includes the likes of Emily Mortimer, Ted Levine, Jackie Earl Hayley and Elias Koteas.
However despite the very tough competition, Leonardo DiCaprio owns this flick. His recent other collaborations with Scorsese have seen him stretching his wings as an actor, to soar above those Peter Pan pin-up good looks, and in Shutter Island he really inhabits the role of Teddy Daniels, delivering an astonishing performance that is quite possibly his best to date.
And Scorsese himself is on top form. He ensuring there is real dramatic meat on the bones of the plot; which might sound like business as usual but in the case of Shutter Island this is no mean feat. This is a script which many directors would flounder with, and make the mistake of focusing on building a twist in the tail ending. He masterfully orchestrates the complexities of the storyline and reinforces the plot developments with excellent performances from his gifted cast.
The original novel was written in part as a tribute to both the gothics and the pulps, and the movie honours this completely. Scorsese weaves a powerful and evocative atmosphere, one that is as drenched in hardboiled sweat as it is uncanny mists and midnight tempests. And they blend beautifully on the titular island, with Scorsese building up a believable yet eerie unique location for the story.
Best of all though, he isn’t content to just raid the cliché box and wheel out the standard spooky movie tropes – a recurring problem when Hollywood ventures into genre territory with a big budget or big talent. Though they are entertaining flicks, both Bram Coppola’s Dracula and the recent Wolf Man remake were very lazy directorially, pulling out stereotypical horror movie set ups and shots pioneered by Universal and Hammer. And while you expect this from a journeyman like Joe Johnston, it’s very galling when a supposed auteur like Coppola is displaying such visionary bankruptcy.
So it was a real delight to see Scorsese pulling out all the stops, crafting a film brimming with astounding and inventive cinematography, and creating not only vivid and startling imagery but also taking a refreshingly novel approach to visual story telling. Like Lewton’s pictures, Scorsese grasps the potential in playing with the audience’s expectations of how they expect a film to be shot; subverting the clichés and inventing new approaches on the fly to catch them off guard.
It’s often said that the mark of a good score is that you don’t notice the music in the film, and I often think the same is true of good direction. However I’d contend that the exception to this rule is that truly exceptional direction should leap out and blow you away. And in Shutter Island Scorsese’s direction does just this. The execution flashback and Daniels exploring with matches, to highlight just a couple of examples, are scenes so creatively executed you want to fall to your knees and give tearful thanks to the gods of the silver screen.
Shutter Island’s real strength is that it works on so many different levels. And although there are some critics who have already sniffily dismissed it as a high gloss B-picture, they should really be brained with their own keyboards because Shutter Island is not just first class narratively but a tremendous artistic achievement too. Scorsese at the top of his game, with Marty showing an old dog can not only learn new tricks but actually invent them.
When once asked why the horror film was so lowly regarded by the movie industry, Val Lewton said it was because “it has dealt so childishly with such childishly unreal material. Too many camera tricks were used to show men turning into beasts and so on, and too little trouble to make the horror psychological” with the final result being “mostly tawdry, unreal, and cheap uninteresting movie entertainment”. And these words ring as true today as back then, as the most recent big budget resurrections of both the Count, Frankenstein and Larry Talbot bear witness.
But Scorsese succeeds where the likes of Coppola, Johnston and Branagh failed because he understands that the key to really getting under the audience’s skin is to deliver a cinematic experience that speaks to us on an emotional level. You may entertain your viewers by rounding up the expected elements of blood, thunder storms, heaving cleavage and shouting boo now and then, but if you want ensure your imagery and story will linger long after the popcorn is finished, you have to tap into the fragilities and insecurities of their psyches. You need to provoke thought as well as thrills, and deliver the humanity along with the horror.
And I’m sure Lewton would have applauded a film like Shutter Island that treats both its audience and its material with intelligence. And we should all be applauding Scorsese too for bringing us a perfectly rounded film balances riveting entertainment with artistic and creative depth.
JIM MOON, 14th March 2010