Monday, July 19, 2010

Open and shutter case

It's hard to tell whether the excessively artificial look and tone of the Shutter Island (2010) is a deliberate aesthetic choice by director Martin Scorsese, or a symptom of his distance from the material. At first, the artificiality, such as the opening depicted in this illustration, looks like a heightening, a evocation of film noir in modern color tones. Reportedly, as fake as this scene looks, it was not shot green-screen, but on an actual boat. Unfortunately, the effects supervisor monkeyed with the sky to make an impossible color and a background ambiance which is mis-matched with the foreground lighting of the principal characters. And that approach seems endemic to the film.

It is not so much that Scorsese is trying to emulate film noir with a more modern technique, but as though he is copying contemporary directors like Ridley Scott and the way they evoke film noir. It is style at two removes. The purported comedy After Hours felt more authentically noir (and more genuinely menacing) than Shutter Island. The script feels like an oddly uncommitted episode of The Twilight Zone and

Just checked around on-line and found out that Roger Ebert thought the film has a surprise ending. Screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis denies that intention, and says that by 15 minutes the audience should be aware that something is wrong with DiCaprio's character. For my part, I guessed the "twist" by about 20 minutes, and I could do that because it's exactly the same plot twist found in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a highly influential film produced in 1919. And if the twist isn't supposed to be a surprise, why is so much energy put into the red herrings. (In the above-alluded-to interview, the writer said the protagonist's conflict was between his love for his wife and his daughter. That was not made clear in the film as it exists.)

Scorsese's famous continuity errors go into overdrive in this film and there is some of the worst green-screen work scene since they stopped doing rear-projection--was that intentional, or did Scorsese really not care on this one? Surely no one seemed to care that Leonardo DiCaprio's German accent is far better than Max von Sydow's. And when, midway through the film, Patricia Clarkson gives a lucid explanation of what's "actually going on" and the camera is finally locked down and the colors manipulated into fake hues in post-production, which is supposed to make the whole scene feel more reliable, it just amps up the unbelievable quality of the scene (not to mention the whole film). And sadly, whereas the story might have been interpreted as metaphor for--I don't know, whatever you like--the ending reveals it to be a boring little mental health story, as if that boring psychiatrist at the end of Psycho had been put in touch of an entire movie.

There are pleasures to be had, mostly from Mark Ruffalo, one of our master actors working today, along with Spacey, Downey and Depp. Ruffalo is called upon throughout much of the film to be communicating two intentions at the same time (wise-cracking sidekick and concerned, observing doctor) and manages it perfectly. DiCaprio, on the other hand, still has squinty rat eyes and a flat thin voice typical of people brought up in Southern California, so it is not fair to put him next to an actual trained and expressive actor, like Ruffalo making him look like a well-intentioned amateur. Ben Kingsley has nothing to do, especially since they won't let him act creepy, which is what he should be doing, and Max von Sydow is clearly on hand merely to build up his grandchildren's trust fund. But nothing of this bears any relationship to acting in a Scorsese film, which used to be detailed, precise and reflective of real life.

The point is, if you're going to be deliberately artificial, like Hitchcock, Leone, Michael Powell (a favorite of Scorsese's) or Ken Russell, you have to be committed to it, you have to really believe in it. And Scorsese directs this film as if he doesn't believe one single frame of it, and it's all a silly lark, all quotes from stuff he teaches in film class. What I'm trying to say is that this appears to be a Brian DePalma picture.

This movie will confuse you or terrify you if you have never seen a movie before or if you only have five working brain cells. What attracted a first-class talent like Scorsese to this project (other than a pay check) is the real mystery.

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