The last time Martin Scorsese went to Boston he had the biggest mainstream hit of his career and won an Oscar as Best Director. “The Departed’s” change of scenery seemed to do him good so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his latest film is also set in the New England city, this time however, he isn’t telling a tale of gangsters, but a story of the criminally insane—“the bugsies” they call them—on an piece of land in Boston harbor called Shutter Island.
Returning for his fourth outing with Scorsese Leonardo DiCaprio headlines the all star cast, playing Teddy Daniels, a US Marshall assigned to investigate the disappearance of a patient on the isolated Shutter Island asylum. Working with Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), his new partner, he must keep a close grip on his own sanity. Is he insane or is he being driven insane?
I’ve kept the synopsis deliberately vague because there is so much going on in “Shutter Island,” it is such a house of cards that revealing one detail too many could bring the whole thing down and spoil the experience of seeing it through fresh eyes. This will be a no spoiler zone, but that means being light on the details.
“Shutter Island” (adapted from a Dennis Lehane novel) is likely the most enigmatic movie Scorsese has ever made. It’s a bold, risk-taking film, ripe with dramatic music, sweeping photography and unapologetically strange storytelling. It’s a story of paranoia, a deeply psychological thriller that pays homage to Hitchcock films like “Vertigo” and “North By Northwest.” Throw in a dollop of “The Snake Pit” and some Mario Bava you get an idea of the tone of the film.
He uses flashbacks, odd and deliberate lapses in continuity, weird camera tricks—he runs the film backwards in one scene so it looks like smoke is flowing into, rather than out of DiCaprio’s cigarette—to create an atmosphere of creeping dread, one in which the viewer, and perhaps even the characters don’t know what is real and what is not. Where many of his earlier films like “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas” are about a state of existence, “Shutter Island” is all about a state of mind.
Anchoring the film is a fantastic performance from DiCaprio who by times seems to be channeling Jimmy Stewart. Not the “Philadelphia Story” Stewart but the edgy, post war Stewart of “Rope” and “Vertigo.” His performance seems artificial, as though he has spent too much time watching film noirs, but watch for the subtleties, the way he suggests his character’s hidden depths with interesting line readings and reactions. It’s a brave performance and one that doesn’t reveal itself entirely until the film’s final moments, but it’s one that will hold up to multiple viewings.
The movie, for all its boldness, however, may not. It is perhaps a bit too enigmatic for its own good, its twist ending is unconvincing and a bit of a letdown, (for once I was wishing for a little M. Night Shyamalan influence), but even Scorsese’s missteps have more interesting filmmaking than most other films at the multiplex.
“Shutter Island” is a difficult movie that demands more than most audiences are probably willing to give these days. It’s an art film disguised as a police drama and will probably leave the crowds who loved “The Departed” scratching their heads.
Given the Hollywood success novelist Dennis Lehane has had in recent years you’d expect him to live in the 90210 area code. No dice, says the blunt speaking author of Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone and Shutter Island (which comes to DVD and Blu Ray June 8).
“If you live in LA you’re suddenly that guy,” he says on the line from his home in Boston. “You get lost in it. Everywhere you turn everyone is a writer. Where I live now I’m it, at least for a couple of blocks there’s no other writers.”
Certainly there are no other authors in his area with a tinsel town track record like his. The film adaptations of his novels have put him on a first name basis with legendary filmmakers like Clint and Marty and have earned seven Oscars nominations. But don’t look to him to take all the credit for the success of the movies.
“There are only two things I can take credit for and I’m not being falsely disingenuous or anything,” he says, “I’m just being honest. I seem to write characters that actors are attracted to. I invest a lot in my characters, so my characters tend to have multiple dimensions. OK, there I go. I just pumped myself up.
“Other than that I will only get in business with the absolute crème de la crème talent wise and taste wise. Just look at my behind-the-credits people. Look at my producers; they are people that if you look at the CVs are extremely impressive. That spreads out to other talented people. Who are talented people going to pick to write your screenplays? They are going to pick talented writers. Who are they going to pick to do the director’s job? They are going to pick talented directors. Who are the directors going to pick? They’re going to pick talented actors and so on. That’s really what’s been going on.”
Talented though he may be, he’s never adapted one of his own novels for the screen.
“I’m not particularly interested in adapting my own work. It is just not something that I can do. I’m just not competent. I’m the last person you should trust. I don’t know how to cut. I just spent two or three years of my life trying to get a book to 401 pages. Not 402 and not 399 and then you are going to turn around and say that’s the guy I want to trust to cut it to 135?”
Shutter Island, Lehane’s ominous thriller turned Martin Scorsese film about a U.S. Marshal (Leonardo DiCaprio) investigating a disappearance at the remote Shutter Island hospital for the criminally insane, sprung from two separate incidents.
“When I was a little kid my uncle took me out to one of the harbor islands and pointed out where a mental institution—the skeletal remains were still there—and it just stuck in my head. Many, many years later I had a crazy dream one night. I wrote it all down and woke up the next morning and looked at my notes and those notes are pretty much what Shutter Island is.”
Watching Scorsese work, he says was “mind boggling,” but true to form he didn’t spend much time on the set.
“Sets are so unbelievably boring if you don’t have a purpose on them,” he says. “A caterer is far more important on a film set than a novelist. A caterer, hey man, they give you the food; a novelist is just standing there saying, ‘I thought this up.’”
He’d rather be at home, in Boston. “It continually fuels me plus Bostonians are just funny sons-of-bitches. How else would I get to hear great lines all the time?”
Last week, the Internet lit up with news that one of the great actor-director teams might reunite to remake one of their classic films.
Rumours (since debunked) had Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro set to give Taxi Driver the sequel treatment.
It seemed too good to be true — De Niro is busy overseeing the Tribeca Film Festival and Scorsese is occupied with new muse Leonardo DiCaprio — and the rumor turned out to be just that — a rumour.
But for a tantalizing moment it seemed there might be a new film from one of the most dynamic director-actor pairings since Bogart and Huston or Mifune and Kurosawa.
Not that there are any shortage of director-actor teams. Scorsese and DiCaprio’s newest bit of teamwork, Shutter Island, opens this weekend and the latest Pedro Almodóvar-Penélope Cruz film, Broken Embraces, was recently nominated for a Golden Globe.
“I think you find, when you talk about a collaboration between a filmmaker and an actor, that it’s always evolving,” said Shutter Island producer Brad Fischer. “I don’t think it begins and ends with any one movie.”
Diane Keaton cites the evolution of collaboration with Woody Allen — they made seven films together, including the classic Annie Hall, between 1973 and 1993 — with elevating her from a “novice who had lots of feelings but didn’t know how to express herself” to someone who “can be braver and more spontaneous.”
Penélope Cruz is more effusive when discussing her mentor Pedro Almodóvar, who made her an art house darling, international star and claims to have “saved her from Hollywood.”
“He changed the way I looked at the world before I even knew him,” she says.
“There is something that works really well in our relationship that combines both our friendship and the professional side,” says Almodóvar. “We operate like lovers. So while we don’t have the pleasures of sex, we don’t have the complications of sex either. We work really well as a couple who don’t sleep together.”
Sometimes the director- actor relationship extends past the movie set. Four years after shooting The Life Aquatic in Italy, Wes Anderson regular Bill Murray (five films together) asked the director to deliver 10,000 Euros in cash to his former landlord.
“It’s not as weird as it sounds,” said Anderson on paying the rent a little late. “Bill can be a little weird with time.”