“The wimmin folk will want the vote next” – readers on last week’s women’s Ticket,
REMEMBER Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear? Remember how, after crawling out from under its avalanche of crude sensation, you felt the need to take a long, cold shower and lie in a darkened room for 20 minutes? Well, Marty’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island makes that film seem as measured as A Room with a View.
Punctuated by Frankensteinian thunderstorms, whose noisier moments always coincide with significant plot revelations, Shutter Island is a full-throated hymn to cinema’s broader potentials. That is to say, it’s brash, noisy and bloody, but it’s intelligently aware of its brashness, noisiness and bloodiness.
It hardly needs to be said that Martin Scorsese has always woven cinematic influences into his films. Taxi Driver was consciously modelled on John Ford’s The Searchers. Goodfellas contained allusions to (of all things) Michael Powell’s Tales of Hoffman. But never before has the director attempted something so close to a meta-film. (New York, New York came close, mind.)
The spirit of a dozen great vintage B-movies surge through Shutter Island’s clogged veins, but it still thinks itself something rather important. It might be correct in that view.
The film, set near Boston in the mid-1950s, begins with a powerfully evocative maritime prelude. A boat approaches a forbidding island through clinging mist. Aboard the vessel are two cops in regulation fedoras and raincoats: the angst ridden, baby-faced Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his wry partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). On the island is an institution for the criminally insane, and the two men have been summoned to investigate a puzzling – indeed, near-impossible – disappearance from the facility.
After various horror film formalities, the two men are led to meet peculiar Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley), the chief psychiatrist, and the terrifying, cadaverous Dr Naehring (Max von Sydow). The doctors occupy the kind of room that, when not hosting the opening sequences of penny dreadfuls, accommodates introductions to BBC adaptations of 19th-century novels. A gramophone plays Mahler. Cut-glass tumblers of whiskey sit beside leather wing chairs.
A kind of psychological joust then begins. Teddy, it appears, has secrets. His wife died in a terrible fire (represented in a beautifully surreal flashback) and he has never quite got over the experience of entering a recently liberated Dachau (represented in a dubiously elegant flashback) less than a decade earlier. The two doctors seem intent on teasing out his anxieties. Teddy is keen to brush them aside.
For all the virtues of Lehane’s novel, the film’s main strengths are in the areas of tone, ambience and creative preposterousness. From the opening frames, the viewer is aware that he has been offered a stark choice. Get onboard and enjoy the sensory overload or stay grumpily on the dock sneering at the vulgarity of it all. It’s hard to imagine anyone negotiating an effective middle way.
The early, promiscuous use of Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel suite (20th-century classical music is everywhere about) stands as a neat model for the larger system in which it sits. Originally used to accompany stark, abstract expressionist paintings, the piece now offers counterpoint to cackling lunatics, cacophonous storms and playfully absurd plot reversals. Such is Scorsese’s determination to mash-up high and popular culture.
Ultimately, the pulp aesthetic is bound to win out. DiCaprio tries a little too hard to make sense of his character, while Kingsley and von Sydow join other charismatic actors (Patricia Clarkson, Ted Neely) in gleefully masticating every available piece of scenery.
The delicious mass of high camp only falters when, in the lengthy last act, the over-complicated denouement gets its thousand tendrils caught up in every corner of the windswept island.
Nonetheless, Scorsese’s gloomy outcrop remains a place every half-serious cinema enthusiast will want to visit at least once.
Murder most foul? Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo DiCaprio in Shutter Island