Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Shutter Island: The Life of the Mind

It's always an event to see a new Scorsese movie in the theater for me. Whatever the story, whatever the subject, whatever the genre, Scorsese's command of the language of cinema usually ensures that the movie will have his inimitable stamp on it. Unfortunately, as many great things as Shutter Island has going for it, it just doesn't have that unique Scorsese stamp on it, and it suffers as a result.

The story is set in 1954 at a mental hospital located on an island in Boston Harbor. Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is investigating the disappearance of Rachel Solando, a patient institutionalized after murdering her children who escaped from her cell and, in the words of the head of Ashecliffe Hospital Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), "We don't know how she got out of her room. It's as if she evaporated, straight through the walls".

Daniels has his hands full investigating this. In addition to the mysterious nature of the case, he is working with a new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). Attempting to establish a bond, Daniels confides in Aule that he specifically requested the case on Shutter Island because one of the patients confined there was a gardener at his house years ago named Laeddis, who lit the lawn on fire which killed his wife. When not investigating the case, Daniels is haunted by visions of his dead wife, Dolores (Michele Williams). On top of all this there is a hurricane passing by Shutter Island that allows even more patients to escape their cells.

Through all of this, DiCaprio commands the screen in every scene he's in. From the first shot where he struggles with seasickness to the last stunned realization of what is happening, DiCaprio's intensity is what makes the movie compelling. It's almost as if he's making up for a lack of intensity on the part of Scorsese. The dark foreboding look of uncertainty and paranoia is there in Robert Richardson's excellent cinematography, but where there could have been cinematic moments of frenetic scariness, instead Scorsese went with long sweeping shots to perhaps try to capture the totality of gloom and dread there. As a result, there is a lack of energy that makes this picture evocative rather than provocative. It's scary looking without having a single scary moment.

But it's far from boring, by any means. It's a captivating story that leads down many dark paths exploring a rich subtext seeped in the paranoia of that time. As Daniels explores his leads to unravel the case, including patients who speak of lobotomies done through the eye as well as drug experimentation, he lets us inside his head as he tells his partner Aule what he suspects: that this is a facility for the military to conduct mind control experiments with funding provided by the House Unamerican Activities Committee. His wariness about this situation is further exacerbated by the presence on the island of Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow). Meeting this mysterious German brings back World War II flashbacks of Daniels murdering Nazis. That there might be a Nazi facilitating torture on patients here in America fills Daniels with even more obsessiveness to solve this case.

There are real life parallels that made this story even more compelling for me and kept me fascinated with the wonder of how these elements would be resolved by the end of the movie. That parallel would be the government mind control programs that actually were conducted during the Cold War. Those programs controlled by the CIA went under the cryptonym MK-ULTRA. A precursor to this program was Operation Paperclip, which began in 1945 by recruiting former Nazi scientists who had studied torture and brainwashing, and included several Nazi war criminals. Experiments were often conducted without the patient's knowledge or consent. As Daniels surmises in the film as it concerns Shutter Island, the focus on mind control techniques during the 1950s was largely a response to the Soviet, Chinese and North Korean use of these techniques on US soldiers during the Korean War. CIA documents that have been declassified show that "chemical, biological and radiological" means were investigated for the purpose of mind control. Hypnosis was also used, which has led many researchers to believe the experiments had the goal of creating a "Manchurian Candidate" controlled killer. However, the CIA under the orders of Director Richard Helms destroyed all MK-ULTRA files in 1973, making a full investigation of MK-ULTRA impossible.

Having read much of what I know recently about the history of these mind control techniques as they correspond with current torture, excuse me, "enhanced interrogation" programs in Naomi Klein's excellent best seller The Shock Doctrine, I was hoping Scorsese would explore how these themes have been realized in their current context. Unfortunately, the movie has one of those "surprise twist" endings. I won't give away what that twist is in this review, but I can express my disappointment that this ending basically invalidated most of the case that Daniels was investigating. It essentially watered down most of the themes explored in the film, except perhaps paranoia itself. This was a film that seemed headed toward a resolution on the level of the type of conspiracy thrillers usually explored by John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May)and Alan J. Pakula (All the President's Men, The Parallax View), instead it wound up settling into an ending straight out of one of the weaker entries in the M. Night Shyamalan canon (The Village, Lady in the Water). It was dramatically unsatisfying, as many of the justifications given by the characters for why things happened the way they did felt contrived as it related to Daniels, or contained flimsy motivations as it concerned other characters. In the end, the only thing that really holds the film up is DiCaprio, by sheer willpower. For his performance, I'll watch the film again, but also double-check to verify if what I perceived as weaknesses in the film actually hold up. It's an interesting exercise, but ultimately too disconcerting to have what I thought was a conspiracy thriller end up playing games with my mind.


Tanya @ TeenAutism said...

Great review - I'll have to see it and let you know what I think!

Robert Paulsen said...

I hope you do, Tanya. With Scorsese, I always hope for a great film. This had some potential, but in the end it just doesn't rank up there with Taxi Driver, GoodFellas, or even Casino, which improves on repeat viewings. So yeah, check it out when you get the chance.