Greatish Performances #6


The following is presented as part of the 5th Annual Supporting Actress Blogathon hosted by StinkyLulu

#6 — Patricia Clarkson as “Rachel Solando” in Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010)

Sticklers about such things might insist that Patricia Clarkson’s performance in Shutter Island is more of a cameo than a proper supporting role. She really only has one scene, and it’s a fairly simple one at that. There are no elaborate set-ups, no complexly choreographed blocking; it’s just two people talking across a robust campfire. Nor is it some sort of showy, emotional part, the sort of thing that compacts nicely into an Oscar clip, like a tearful courtroom confession or an eruption of empowerment on a factory floor. In fact, the scene is heavy with exposition and explanation, the sort of heavy heap of information that can easily drown an actor, even one with immense talent. None of this alters my view that Clarkson’s turn may be the single most enjoyable few minutes any performer has onscreen in 2010. Hell, it may all even enhance and solidify that position.

Clarkson’s scene comes about midway through Scorsese’s twisty mind game of a thriller. Teddy Daniels, played with jittery intensity by Leonardo DiCaprio, has already been spun around over and over again as he investigates the disappearance of a patient from a monumentally creepy insane asylum that’s the sole building on an isolated island. He’s beginning to feel reality itself slipping away, especially as the bad memories that haunt him increase in potency. While trying to get to a lighthouse out among the crags and crashing waves that he’s convinced holds the key to solving the myriad of puzzles before him, he comes upon a bedraggled, wary woman in a cave. She’s holding a small knife in a death grip, desperately prepared to defend herself. Even once she’s comfortable that Teddy is probably an ally, she gestures with the knife and wryly announces, “I’m gonna keep this…if you don’t mind.” With this, Clarkson enters the picture.

It may only be a few minutes of screen time, but it’s a true and proper tour de force. Identifying herself as “Rachel Solando,” a name with a great deal of weight in the film’s whirligig plot, Clarkson’s character is anxious, wild-eyed, cynical, angry, exhausted, shrewd and practically frothing over with survival instinct. These aren’t notes that Clarkson plays. These are qualities embedded in the character, coloring every gesture, every inflection, every pointed glare across the flickering blaze that punctuates her warnings with percolating crackles. The character’s strained mental state allows for some extra fuss and agitation in the performance, an opportunity Clarkson capitalizes on in grand fashion. When she describes a lobotomy her finger twitches up towards her temple like a hiccuping cobra, and when she traces her own tragic path from a valued member of the hospital staff to a fugitive skulking around the crevasses of the island she notes that she came “from a respected family,” allowing a brief lilt of the tonality of privilege to shape her words. When she talks about the trap of being unable to protest once a verdict of insanity has been delivered–every declaration of soundness of mind only reinforces the diagnosis–she proclaims “the Kafkaesque genius of it” with the bitter admiration of someone who’s realized they’ve been snookered into playing a game they can never win.

Of course, part of the unique appeal of the performance is that it holds some extra deception to it. By this point, the film has already established that anyone who confides in Teddy may actually be luring him deeper into a web. Later, the film will shroud even more of its narrative terrain in fog. Clarkson is, in effect, giving a performance of a performance. There’s an extra gloomy glint to her work with that in mind. Clarkson plays her one scene with vigor in part because it’s the sole chance her character has to stride across the hidden stage that resides within the reality of the film. She’s got a major sales job to do, and one chance to do it. So when Teddy reports all of the simple missteps he’s made in trusting the hospital staff, she hits her exclamations of “Jesus!” with a little more punch, and she delivers the comically ominous line “You tell me at least that you’ve been smoking your own cigarettes!” like a mother who can’t believe the trail of malfeasance that her child has left behind.

Scorsese is fond of working repeatedly with actors–DiCaprio, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci just the most famous examples–but he’s gotten great performances out of great actresses ranging from Ellen Burstyn to Vera Farmiga without asking them back from another professional collaboration. Accordingly, Clarkson tackles this role like it’s the one time she’ll get to work with the masterful director, and she’s damn well going to make the most of it. That she does, working the role with stunning, energizing gusto. Shutter Island is the kind of movie that invites repeated viewings to spot subtle clues that may have been missed the first time around. I have great admiration for the film, but, truth is, I longed to return to it mostly because I wanted to see Clarkson again.

The photo above is taken from elsewhere.


About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman

21 thoughts on “Greatish Performances #6

  1. You, sir, speak the truth. So very well.

    Maybe it’s because I’m predisposed to like actors playing crazy without begging for Oscars, but I loved Patricia Clarkson here. The way she said everything with wary sarcasm–something harder than it looks–yeah…

    Right. Anyway.

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