Between Reviews: Small is Beautiful Too

Posted on July 17, 2010



Tightly knit genre films appear to have revitalised Martin Scorsese, last seen reeling under the burden of overblown epics.

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JUL 18, 2010 – AMONGST THE MORE SURPRISING and satisfying developments in recent cinema is Martin Scorsese’s self-imposed (or perhaps studio-imposed) confinement into the strictures of genre. Where the director once roamed free and loose inside the minds of memorably flawed men, he’s now submitted to the tightness of the leash – and it’s the best thing that’s happened to him in ages. Working with simpatico writers like Paul Schrader and simpatico performers like Robert De Niro, Scorsese’s films, once, were epic in ambition and achievement, simultaneously heavy and light, sinking under existential weight and soaring on kinetic filmmaking. But his overt stabs at epics, of late, have been frustrating – more spectacle than spirit. Gangs of New York and The Aviator certainly had their fill of memorable moments, but you couldn’t shake off the sense that the only thing propping them up was the frantic filmmaking, and that without Scorsese’s exertions, they would crumble into nothingness.

The Departed gave the feeling that thinking small, within the confines of genre, had revitalised Scorsese. He had found the perfect material to showcase his ever-increasing flamboyance, just heavy enough to warrant a major director’s participation and yet just light enough to accommodate show-offy pyrotechnics. Shutter Island confirms this feeling. This, too, is basically a ballsy B-movie, boxed into a beginning-middle-end arc (though, in the spirit of Godard, not necessarily in that order), and the sturdiness of the underlying structure allows Scorsese to focus his formidable skills solely on narrative propulsion. (And that, of course, is paramount in a plot-driven – as opposed to character-driven – paradigm.)

With The Departed and Shutter Island, it isn’t so much about mental interiors as physical exteriors – both in terms of the terrains that these films are set in as well as the stylistic, genre-specific tropes they deliberately employ to thrilling effect. (Shutter Island, for instance, opens in the 1950s, and the matte visuals, showcased in high-contrast cinematography, are as obvious an homage as the Vertigo-staircase. And like the latter, this too is about the investigation of a woman’s “disappearance,” this time an inmate from a mental asylum.) As with Scorsese’s “lighter” films like Goodfellas and Cape Fear – granted that they can be deemed “light” only in the context of this director – the waters may be shallow, but the surface is scintillating.

The genre (rather, the style) invoked in Shutter Island is noir and, fittingly, the protagonist, Teddy Daniels, is a detective, ridden by guilt and riven by internal demons, arising from a gruesome personal tragedy. Like this character, the plot, too, is pure noir – a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a puzzle, with suggestions of Manchurian Candidate-like mind experiments, government conspiracies, and the insistently implicit notion that Daniels is, like the classic noir protagonist, in over his head. A character remarks to him, “You’re a rat in a maze.” That Teddy certainly is – and after making considerable inroads into this maze, he confronts actual rats, hundreds of fellow maze-dwellers. Looking back, it’s entirely unsurprising that Teddy’s first words have him speaking to himself while peering into a mirror. “Pull yourself together,” he says, reminding us that he is falling apart.

There are red herrings, early on, suggesting that Shutter Island may actually be a horror movie (or if you’d like, a horror film tinged with elements of noir). As Daniels strides into the asylum, an inmate draws her finger across a throat which bears the marks of a knife wound, perhaps due to a suicide attempt – and she not only appears to be drawing attention to her plight but also pointing to his. He may wind up with his throat sliced. That certainly sounds like horror-worthy material (and it’s certainly tempting to think of Scorsese unleashing his visual bravura on horror-worthy material).

But unlike horror, where every development is geared towards the “boo” moment, noir is more insidious in the ways it discomfits its audience. In a horror film, the stretch where the electrified fences surrounding the asylum are down and the inmates are running amuck would result in scares, like the similar sequence in Jurassic Park where the dinosaurs step beyond their confines and terrorise the unshuttered island. But here, the function of the fence is simply to draw upon Teddy’s memories from a similarly fenced-in community, the concentration camp at Dachau, whose liberation he was part of as an Allied solider. We are discomfited not by horrific attacks by mentally deranged patients, but by the horrors inside Teddy.

Noir lent itself most famously to police procedurals and psychological thrillers, and Shutter Island is a bit of both. (The doctor who presides over the institution describes their efforts as a fusion of law and order and clinical care – and he could be describing the film itself.) The only strain arises from the occasional overreaching. As with Cape Fear, where Scorsese tacked the dimension of a failing marriage onto the story of a couple that’s terrorised by a psychopath (the earlier Gregory Peck version made no such detour), Shutter Island too shows signs of a classy filmmaker trying to class up a seedy joint whose very draw is its seediness.

The metaphor of water, for instance, is ceaselessly invoked – in the relentless rain, in the ocean that cuts the titular island away from civilisation, in the sub-story of a husband who died at the beaches of Normandy and a wife who drowned her kids in a lake, and in the leaking roof that wakens Teddy from a nightmare. (The German word for dream is “traum,” we are told, and Teddy’s traums are derived from his trauma.) No self-respecting forties’ noir would burden itself with such bloat – and with their lean, mean running times, there was never much scope for bloat in the first place – but Shutter Island gets away with its allegorical padding because Scorsese, elsewhere, is in superb form.

Noir is a natural fit for his talents, not just on a personal level (he’s still able to mine the darkness of the human condition amidst the collapse of moral systems) but also stylistically. Even the zig and zag of hardboiled dialogue (though not so much in this film) mirrors the zigzag of his visual verve, and his trademark flamboyance is exquisitely showcased in the astounding dream sequences, where fire, water, snow and blood blend into gorgeous Freudian fantasies. How disappointing, then, that Scorsese’s next project is a 3-D adaptation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a children’s book whose Wiki description makes it sound like something more suited to Tim Burton. Just as he appeared to be settling wonderfully into the regimen of tightly knit genre pictures, he’s been hijacked by flights of unfettered fantasy.

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