Shutter Island (Scorsese, 2010)

In the cavernous psychological minefield of Film Noir, one man’s heightened dream is another man’s crushing nightmare. This battle depends on conflicting perceptions of heightened imagery, where diverging states of consciousness shadow-box across the frame until chance or fate permanently mutes the players involved. And throughout the highly stylized cinema of Martin Scrosese, dreamer and demon are often indistinguishable from each other. But Shutter Island, a staggering green flash of style, iconography, and paranoia, might be Scorsese’s most confined exercise in mental entrapment, complicating roles of hero, villain, and ultimately victim. Set in 1954 on a jagged weather torn isle in the Boston Harbor, Shutter Island completely immerses the viewer in the haunting complexities and gaps of Noir aesthetics, yet like all great films of its ilk, strangely connects them to the moral and social ramifications of the War Film. Scorsese’s duality doesn’t just boil down to psychology of character, but genre as well.

Unfolding immediately in mid-moment, Shutter Island disintegrates cinematic formalities with a close-up of U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) splashing water on his face. “Get it together Teddy”, Daniels trembles, visibly shaken by the nautical mode of transportation eroding his comfort zone with every passing second. As Daniels makes his way topside from the cramped underbelly of the ship, the imposing vessel plows through fields of fog like a hot knife through butter, Scorsese dwarfing his lead character in an endless sea of menace. This begins a tonal chess match, one defined by jarring environments and assumptions surrounding Teddy and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). As if to punctuate the sense of uncertainty, Scorsese holds on the pair from afar as they slowly drift toward the titular mental hospital to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a dangerous female inmate.

Narratively, Shutter Island litters scenes with unsubtle symbols and metaphors. Teddy and Chuck storm island just ahead of a massive hurricane, pitting mood against location with all of Scorsese’s patented visual bravado. And the shifty locale springs both natural and human warning signs from all angles, as prisoners convincingly intimidate, orderlies and nurses restlessly rustle, and head physician Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) slyly subverts the investigation at every turn. But Scorsese’s direction favors potent individual moments over general revelations, and the investigation takes a backseat to Teddy’s increasingly vivid, hallucinatory flashbacks regarding his time as a soldier liberating Dachau and most strenuously, images of his dead wife (Michelle Williams) and daughter. Dark shadows creep, rocky cliffs surround, and flashes of bright color shove the narrative into surreal tangents, organically transmitting a current of doubt and deception into Teddy’s crumbling professional facade. Thankfully, Shutter Island inevitably turns inward, moving away from the machinations of the procedural and into the subjective flowering/wilting of memory, guilt, and ultimately redemption.

Despite some gloriously inane twists and an avalanche of exposition, Shutter Island succeeds masterfully in exploring the connection between broken mind and traumatic experience. Noir films, always burning with Expressionist imagery and tragedy, originate from traumatic gallows invariably tied to the terrible experiences of military combat. Scorsese’s moody mind-fuck is no different, except Shutter Island completely devotes itself to the desperate patient, to the conflicted lost cause, to the tainted delusional bouncing off the walls in an effort to break through the pain. In this sense, it’s a rare exercise in extreme genre that turns incredibly personal, devastatingly so. Scorsese has long since mastered the art of exterior rampage with characters like Jake LaMatta or Travis Bickle bulldozing tradition and convention in favor of reactionary formal outbursts. But even during it’s most cinematically virtuoso moments, Shutter Island remains connected to the interior fighter, the many tormented souls hellbent on convincing the world their nightmare is merely a dream in disguise.

Body of Lies (Scott, 2008)

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Global terror turns strikingly personal in Ridley Scott’s problematic but fascinating international thriller Body of Lies. For a movie almost overrun by plot twists and locales, Scott manages to infuse Body of Lies with a dire sense of personal loss and strife, felt almost entirely by Leonardo DiCaprio’s young superstar C.I.A. field agent hopping from one Middle East hot spot to the next. Russell Crowe’s homeland puppeteer double crosses whenever necessary, coming to represent an aloof eye in the sky completely adrift from his own people’s loyalties and ideologies. In the end, national pride gives way to serious cynicism, a departure of sorts for Scott who’s sported a more simplistic message of hope in films like Black Hawk Down. As the bodies and limbs pile up in Body of Lies, the film sees the brightest young American standouts of this current war get burnt out over indifference and betrayal, something that’s never supposed to happen to homegrown talent on the silver screen.

Revolutionary Road (Mendes, 2008)

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In each of his four feature films, director Sam Mendes finds tragedy in families on the edge of collapse, be it within the United States Military in Jarhead, or the nuclear ones in American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and now Revolutionary Road. More interestingly though, Mendes is one of the few Western directors to truly genre hop, from Melodrama, to Gangster, to War film, autuerist motifs/themes/ mise-en-scene in tow. While Revolutionary Road might initially be perceived as a marital war of words, it contains multiple elements of Horror which stand out as the film progresses. As the young couple (Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio) living in 1950′s suburbia struggle to find relevance in the suffocating confines of conformity, Mendes manipulates their seemingly sunny locale with cavernous close-ups and harsh strands of light. This breaking marriage weaves excuses, lies, and tenderness together to form a timeline of inadequacy, Roger Deakins’ hypnotically menacing camera constantly hovering throughout. Only Michael Shannon’s mental patient PhD sees this couple for who they are, and has the brass to say so in two dynamic scenes of comeuppance. The anger, anguish, and betrayal culminate into one striking image toward the end of the film, where the small dripping vibrancy of red overwhelms the monochromatic space, finally juxtaposing the destructive qualities of limitation and weakness with the fear at the heart of such emotions. This suburban nightmare has many monsters lurking underneath the surface, waiting for a time to passively reveal their crippling perceptions about family, tradition, and image. The silence is almost too much to stand.

The Departed (Scorsese, 2006)

Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, a brutal and exhausting American remake of the Hong Kong crime drama Infernal Affairs (2002), uses pitch-perfect rock music cues and unnerving, relentless violence to create a hypnotic tone and speed all it’s own. Set in Boston, the story follows the rise of two moles, one (DiCaprio) a cop infiltrating the mob, the other (Damon) a worm for the mob (led by the maniacal Jack Nicholson) infiltrating the Special Investigations Unit of the MA State Police. As each ascends, they work to uncover the other’s identity, creating endless problems for all involved. There’s also a love interest thrown in the middle, a psychiatrist (Verma Farmiga) who’s involved in one way or another with both Damon and DiCaprio’s characters.

The story has plenty of holes, but you can’t keep your eyes off the screen due to the dynamic performances by the leads, especially Damon, whose ambition and weak morality sit side by side with the ultimate themes of the film. The final image speaks volumes about his character’s need to succeed, no matter how much institutional deception and needless death stare him in the face. The Departed seems to be playing by it’s own rules, defying traditional narrative and editing techniques that make the experience exhilarating and frustrating.

Scorsese owes much of the success of this film to his life-long editor Thelma Schoonmaker, whose rhythm and finesse enable a sometimes overcomplicated story to remain based in character and consequence. The film shifts into a higher gear with each scene, the story finally morphing into something that transcends genre. Scorsese and his cast and crew have created a template/critique of American power, revealing the hidden impotency behind the aggression and weakness that makes these characters deceive and destroy. The Departed stands as an unsettling and conflicted masterpiece, a bloodletting of corruption and ambition that paints the town red more than once, but never without rhyme or reason.