“The wim­min folk will want the vote next” – read­ers on last week’s women’s Ticket,

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Front Page -

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

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