Before I write anything, I have to admit that I will have to see this again before I trust anything I think about this movie. I rarely see films more than once at the theatre, but this will definitely be an exception. So, dear reader, this post may be more confusingly inarticulate than most.
After a first viewing, I believe this is possibly one of Martin Scorsese‘s best narrative feature films (and I’ve seen them all, save Kundun). One cannot discard the winding, conspiracy-laden plot from the filmmaking technique, but judging on a purely technical level, I defy anyone to name another (living, American) director who can so masterfully meld his own thematic motifs and personal/historical film references/obsessions in a such a seemingly effortless way (credit, of course, goes to others like Thelma Schoomaker as well; his career long editor).
So, let’s focus on those two elements:
Scorsese’s thematic obsessions are relevant here in a way that is both obvious and newly applied. His background as a seminary student and, of course, his (Italian) immigrant upbringing bring an ingrained sense of questioning the morality of Action, especially in violence, and a repeated examination of the possibility for redemption in the fall-of-Man. In this film we have a man, Teddy Daniels, “duly appointed Federal Marshal”; an entrusted authority of the Law, compelled to find and save a woman literally lost in and to the world. In this quest he, of course, must wrestle with his own sense of right-and-wrong, his past indiscretions (real or imagined), and how far he will go in service to Others. This is not unlike many of Scorsese’s better known protagonists (some of them also played by Leonard DiCaprio, in an increasingly impressive list of roles). What is different here is the complexity and convolution involved in this character’s arc. Unlike, say, the delusions of Robert DeNiro‘s Travis Bickle or Rupert Pumpkin (or, dare someone say, Willem Dafoe‘s Christ), the purpose and nature of DiCaprio’s character motivation seems to constantly change and shift, literally before our eyes. Without spoiling anything for those that have yet to experience the film, we begin to question what is actually going on. The film’s narrative ride, for most of the picture, hinges on this doubt and curiosity. We don’t know what he’s thinking (even when we think we do), and Scorsese makes sure the filmmaking keeps us off guard with various visual flourishes that may or may not catch the eye (like the poorly done, perhaps on purpose, green screen/rear projection on the boat at the beginning, or the jarring editing of flash cuts within scenes to draw attention to some sort of change in thought or focus).
If I’ve gotten away from my point about theme, I guess what I’m trying to say is that Scorsese takes what he’s always been interested in inserting into his pictures, some of which have retrospectively been coined as more ‘personal’ than others, and transports it to a new kind of presentation. He is not just venturing into new genre territory (the horror/thriller, I suppose), but also what I will term, for lack of a better phrase, a more open dialogue with the audience. A lot of current, negative Scorsese commentary focuses on how he appears to be working more often as a ‘director-for-hire’ these days, making less of the seemingly ‘personal’ projects he has been defined by in his earlier years. As I’ve begun to say above, I think this is a short-sighted observation. He doing what so many of his idols and predecessors had to do under the Classical Hollywood studio system; working within that system to occasionally transform the given substance into something transcendently more than the sum of its parts.
Part of his own addition to this also has to do with his use of existing, popular music with the image (i.e. the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in Mean Streets ). George Lucas may have broken this ground with American Graffiti, but Scorsese has continued to noticeably use existing music as a major emotional element in his pictures (as well as what one could term a piece of his own ‘authorial voice’).
People may not realize that there was no original score commissioned for Shutter Island. Robbie Robertson, a long-time Scorsese collaborator, supervised the selection of entirely existing music, most of which is neo-classical (and even avant-garde). It’s an odd, jarring assortment of music that only furthers the unique mood of the film.
Let’s try focusing on the other element I mentioned above: Scorsese’s unmatched mastery of film history and general movie knowledge. This film is a treasure trove of film references that have laid the foundation for this type of picture Scorsese has taken upon. Val Lewton, Sam Fuller, Nicholas Ray, even William Castle, are all found within this film if you know where to look. Yet, unlike most of Quentin Tarantino‘s pictures, who is the most obvious predecessor to the predilection for this type of filmmaking (and perhaps even a latent influence as well), Scorsese takes the attitude and atmosphere of films by these filmmakers and makes them his own. In other words I did not notice a prevalence of specific shot and staging references to past films (in my own limited knowledge), but rather a feeling that evokes the power they seem to have for Scorsese personally (He is literally bringing filmmaking from beyond the grave and passing it on to newer audiences in his own films). There is a very memorable flashback in the film that includes a pan, left-to-right, involving a ‘confrontation’ of Allied soldiers and their Nazi counterparts. I don’t know/remember if Sam Fuller used that shot in any of his war pictures, but as I was seeing it happen I knew that he could (maybe even should) have. You might think that this type of thing really has nothing to do with enjoying a film (and you may be right), but to me it just illustrates the interconnectiveness of the art form, and how someone like Scorsese (or even Tarantino in parts of Inglourious Basterds) uses Cinema to accentuate the story. The references aren’t there to be cute or know-it-all-ish; they serve the story and, even if you are unaware of their origin, they have a power that cannot be matched by a more simple, naive filmmaker.
Other random observations:
I wonder what this film would look like in black & white. I also wonder how different this film looks from other films that could have been made with this type of color in 1954.
A lot of people have been mentioning Eyes Wide Shut in comparison to this film. I can see the tonal connection and the fact that they are both (wrongly) criticized for having less going on than it seems. If you like one, I would think you would like the other (despite being completely different in many other ways).
So, once again, this post has very little to do with the story of the film itself. Though, most people may find the story a bit disappointing/confusing, or at perhaps predictable (it is doing surprisingly better at the box office than anticipated). This movie has so much more going on for it than its narrative twists. Although the movie year has just started for me (post-Award season), I can easily say this is my favorite film of the year so far. I can only hope Scorsese continues to make pictures as cinematically interesting as this one. We have the adaptation of Caldecott Medal winning The Invention of Hugo Cabaret to look forward to next…after the eagerly awaited pilot episode of his new, brilliant looking HBO series, Boardwalk Empire, starting this Fall (a preview is posted in the top sidebar to the right).