I’m on an island and I’ve got nowhere to swim


By now it should come as no surprise to anyone that’s paid even cursory attention to these digital dispatches that I like the way Martin Scorsese makes movies. I concede this in advance not to cast doubt upon my opinion of Shutter Island, but simply to acknowledge that I find Scorsese’s approach to be especially gratifying and exciting, especially in recent years as he’s clearly being given as much or more latitude than at any other point in his career. I’m not biased, but I am predisposed, and if Scorsese is being Scorsese then odds are that I’m going to respond favorably.

Scorsese is being Scorsese. He packs Shutter Island with intense, unexpected performances and wondrous, off-kilter imagery. Music booms and bends across the soundtrack, Robert Richardson’s cinematography is both crystal clear and moody, and Scorsese’s longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker continues to prove herself as the one editor who can keep up with the hair-trigger blasts of his creativity. It is a tour de force and a dark, dangerous carnival ride. It’s uncompromisingly grim and yet darkly funny, seemingly enamored with its own dabbling in operatic ludicrousness. By the time Patricia Clarkson shows up as a character uniquely qualified to explain why every path in the labyrinth is destined to lead to a dead end, the movie has completely crossed over into splendid, devilish excess. It’s not just winking at the audience; it’s cackling with helpless, joyous laughter as it does so.

That, to me, is a major key to its success. The film is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, who previously saw his work adapted for films by Clint Eastwood and Ben Affleck. Those films approached Lehane’s twisty plots with grave sincerity, even as the coincidences and conspiratorial plots that strained credulity undercut their effectiveness. Scorsese, by his very approach, his enraptured embrace of technique to further heighten the already grandiloquent drama, is meeting the material where it actually is. I can’t speak to the quality of Lehane’s writing on the page, but onscreen it has come across as potboilers that filmmakers have mistaken for fine art with something precise and troubling to say about human nature. Scorsese goes the other direction, making no pretense to profundity. He wallows in the luridness of it, from the dungeon-like depths of the mental institution sets to the jumpy camerawork to the scene set in a creepy cemetery as a storm rages and lightning crashes. It is always purely, unabashedly a movie, playing all the silly tricks that movies are good at.

Scorsese has now given four straight starring roles to Leonardo DiCaprio, equaling the longest uninterrupted stretch of similar collaborations with Robert De Niro. With each new film DiCaprio proves further why the director who can probably cast anyone–and gets excellent work out of a small battalion of skilled actors that he’s never worked with previously including Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, John Carroll Lynch, Ted Levine, Jackie Earl Haley and the previously mentioned Patricia Clarkson–keeps returning to him. Scorsese has perhaps called upon him for greater depth and range in the past, but he reaches a new pinnacle in terms of the anguish he pulls out of him. Perhaps the only instance of restraint in the film is that Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis didn’t concoct a way for DiCaprio to literally be dragged through a giant wringer. It could have happened. They did have the possibility of a sizable, period laundry room at their disposal. DiCaprio responds with a performance that’s simultaneously exhausting and invigorating, uncompromising in its energy and sly in its twitchy nuances.

All that’s left is to recount the plot, which seems like an act of cruelty for anyone who stumbles upon these words before seeing the movie. There are surprises to be had, but, more importantly, the ride in getting to those narrative jolts is where the fun of the film resides. Sharing anything spoils something. So I’m left with just one more sensation to share, one that’s notably similar to what I felt after first watching Scorsese’s previous film, The Departed. It is a simple thought, but one I hold somewhat dear: This is why I go to the movies.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

3 thoughts on “I’m on an island and I’ve got nowhere to swim

  1. Huh. Guess I gotta go see it. Honestly it looks like a cross between Cape Fear and Bring out your dead…. Or whatever that Nic Cage movie was called. So I’ve been hesitant since I saw the first trailer.

    Scorsese has always had a lot of freedom, or at least the ability to appear that way. I wonder what he’s like unleashed…

    There’s no U2 during fight scenes is there?

    1. It has a lot in common with Cape Fear stylistically, though Shutter has a little more purpose to its flourishes than Cape Fear did.

      In the past Scorsese always had to fight and scrap to get his movies made, and to get them the way he wanted. I recall reading about his some of the battles in Mary Pat Kelly’s book about him, and marveling that it was so difficult for such a well-respected director to get green lights, all the compromises he needed to make, the way he needed to shave his budgets down to unnoticeable figures to get things done. (As an aside to that, one of my favorite details in the book was Scorsese talking about how he pleaded with Paramount to let him make The Last Temptation of Christ in the early eighties, insisted he do anything for it, including direct Flashdance 2 in exchange, which primarily made me wish I could see Flashdance 2 as directed by Martin Scorsese.) I get the sense that, while he’s always had a lot of control over his films, he’s now at a point where he can get anything made just by expressing interest in it. A forty million dollar opening weekend for this doesn’t hurt.

      There’s no U2 or “Gimme Shelter” or any pop songs whatsoever. The music is used marvelously. Robbie Robertson is one of the heroes of the film.

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