Film | Sunday, 28 March 2010

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Scorcese should embrace the trash

I am a fan of ‘minor’ Martin Scorcese work. Sure, ‘Goodfellas’, ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Raging Bull’ are masterpieces of American cinema, and their director rightfully deserved to win an Oscar in 2006. The fact that he won for ‘The Departed’ – a crime thriller remade from the Hong Kong film ‘Infernal Affairs’ – was seen by most as being purely incidental; the important thing was that Marty finally had a gong in hand after the curtains had closed on yet another Academy Award ceremony, and that his long-neglected place among the pantheon of cinematic auteurs had finally been assured.
But just because he is canonised doesn’t automatically make him ‘not fun’. In fact, it’s when he’s trying too hard to construct a ‘well made’ film that his efforts fall flat: ‘The Aviator’ is a testament of that. Packed with some memorable performances (particularly Cate Blanchett’s exuberant turn as Katharine Hepburn) and a dazzling tour of vintage Hollywood, it nonetheless seemed too posed and polished a turn from Scorcese, normally an ardent explorer of all things urban, raw and macho. So it’s at his least self-conscious that I truly like him, when the glare of glory is far away, and you can enjoy the works of a master crafting something for fun – just for him, and possibly for you. Which is why I think his oeuvre contains some truly underrated gems: ‘The King of Comedy’, unfairly called ‘the flop of the year’ when it came out in 1982, is an uncompromisingly dark study of delusion, with a wonderfully understated performance by Scorcese stalwart Robert De Niro, while 1999’s ‘Bringing Out The Dead’ was an adrenaline jolt of black comedy from start to finish, as it detailed an outwardly morose topic – the torment a New York paramedic (played by Nic Cage) who is tortured by the lives he has failed to save – with the most deadpan of delivery and hyper-kinetic speed.
On the face of it, ‘Shutter Island’, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane (‘Mystic River’, ‘Gone Baby Gone’) looked like it could be a similar delight. The trailers revealed all the trappings of a classic noir, with some gothic sprinkling thrown into the mix. Crime and rhapsodic drama have been handled to remarkable effect by Scorcese before, so there seemed to be no reason for the film to not come out spiffing.
The film centres on a U.S. marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) who along with his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) and psychological baggage related to his time in the war, and the death of his wife, travels to a Massachusetts island to investigate the disappearance of a patient from a hospital for the criminally insane. During their inquiry, the two encounter a web of deceit, experience a hurricane and become involved in a deadly inmate riot that leaves them trapped on the island. Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley), the hospital’s enigmatic chief physician, is forced to reluctantly play host to the two U.S. marshals, all the while keeping a lid on Shutter Island’s ominous secrets.
The first half – nay, the first three-quarters – of the film are virtually critic-proof. Not particularly because it’s made up of breathtaking cinema, but it’s perfect in its own enclosed little way. It is unashamedly genre and revelling in it. The dark, twisty yarn unfolds around the tortured Teddy – played with gusto by DiCaprio, who has truly grown into himself during his time with Marty – while Scorcese makes sure the bleak and treacherous setting of Shutter Island itself comes alive and becomes a character in its own right. Teddy’s investigation leads him to contemplate a ‘filthy commie’ conspiracy theory, which adds to the retro, pulpy feel of the whole thing.
And it would have been great if this were sustained. We all like to be entertained ‘at the movies’, and there’s nothing better than being in the hands of a master director who shamelessly ‘slums it’ away at an established genre and delivers the goods. But alas, this does not happen, because of the dreaded twist. I’ll obviously not give anything away… suffice to say that it’s not only predictable, but takes all the fun out of it, and makes the atmospheric build up count for nothing.
Sometimes, letting go is hard… even for geniuses.

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