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.

The Square (Edgerton, 2008)

The film noir doesn’t get much traffic these days. Maybe extreme cynicism, morally ambiguous characters, and dire endings are a tough sell in mainstream cinema. But every few years, a filmmaker dives headfirst into this hyper-stylized genre, re-inventing the rules and subverting expectations in the process. Nash Edgerton’s The Square fits nicely into this mold, an evolving organism of style and character that begins with miscommunication and slowly grows into full blown tragedy. The Noir aesthetics are all present – blackmail, greed, double-crosses, and murder – but Edgerton makes it a point to complicate each character and action, focusing on complex decisions that produce lasting and often violent consequences.

Ray (David Roberts) lives an ordinary life with his loving wife in Sydney suburb working as the head of the local construction project. He also happens to be having an affair with his beautiful neighbor Carla (Claire van der Boom), a younger woman unhappily married to a small time crook named Smithy (Anthony Hayes). When Smithy brings home a suspicious sack of money, the stage is set for a collective breakdown of trust, morality, and ultimately perception. Edgerton uses this scenario as a starting point, watching the deception slowly creep from one relationship to the next. Weather, nature, and even irony bend into the mix and before you know it, THE SQUARE has become a mini-epic of deceit.

The contorted narrative contains as many twists as a pretzel, but most feel organically tied to Ray’s very complex character arc. The script by Joel Edgerton (Nash’s brother) relies on nuance to display and upend character motivation, often stopping dialogue scenes with moments of quiet that pierce through the tension and create a paramount sense of dread. The Square measures each scene carefully, building, overlapping, and finally eroding each character from the inside out. The ramifications of each action aren’t always immediately felt, but as in the best Film Noir, the most dangerous consequences stem from the minute details of inaction and fate.

The Square is so dependent on it’s serpentine story path that some of the middle act gets muddled in the process, especially a side plot with one of Ray’s co-workers. But overall, Edgerton slyly utilizes Noir iconography, spinning each character like a top until a collective whirlpool consumes everyone involved. What’s most interesting is how Edgerton manages to inject weight in even the smallest details, whether it be the potent moments between the main character’s two dogs, Smithy’s brilliant transitions between aggressor and defender, or even the one calm second before the bloody finale, when each of the converging characters stand together in shock and awe.

Throughout The Square, time slows down to a menacing crawl, and no matter the sunny location, the unpredictable weather, or the character’s motives, the surface often represents only a fraction of the truth. Edgerton’s film watches as each character backs themselves into inescapable corners, closing the vice slowly until finally the paranoia and greed destroy any hope for salvation. Finally, Ray takes a long last walk down the his quiet suburban street, forever wondering why his life went to hell. The Edgerton brothers still won’t give him an easy answer.

Mother (Bong, 2010)

Bong Joon-ho’s Mother begins with a strange slow dance performed by an unnamed middle-aged woman (Hye-ja-kim), an improvised solitary glide up a grassy knoll. But this fleeting bout of surface inspiration cuts to a dire sight, a dimly lit medium shot of the dancer now shrouded in darkness staring deeply into the camera. This stark juxtaposition foreshadows a lengthy timeline of suffering, where repressed memories breed new traumas, forming an intricate procedural of delusions in the process. This maternal spider weaves her web with unconditional love.

When her handicapped son Yoon Do-joon (Bin Won) gets accused of murder, Mother goes to great lengths to prove him innocent, and her investigation unearths some nasty skeletons. But her extreme  worry begins before the crime itself, and long before the narrative starts. It’s what defines their relationship, the essence of each character’s fragmented view of reality. Perception is a dangerous beast, especially when dealing with such extreme emotional reactions, and Mother’s very subjective journey confronts demons of all kind.

As with his other films, Bong spins genres and tones seamlessly, mixing and matching until each dynamic scene reveals a different monster for every occasion. With Mother, time and doubt erodes all sense of self, and the truth only makes matters worse. This dedication of slow suffering makes Mother a distant cousin of Memories of Murder, Bong’s masterpiece about the failure of state institutions in the face of unseen evil. But where that films oozes with narrative and genre subversion, Mother turns into a singular exploration of pain, watching the layers of craziness produce long bouts of extreme heartache. What Mother lacks in ambition it makes up for in uncomfortable seediness.

Bong masterfully builds scenes around dirty little secrets. He crafts his films around the struggle between interior and exterior horror. By the end of Mother, this investigation of innocence turns into a familial requiem, the initial dance of freedom proving to be something far more disturbing – an admission that ignorance is indeed bliss.

99 River Street (Karlson, 1953)

An intricate web of deceptions and delusions, Phil Karlson’s 99 River Street epitomizes Noir seediness, gazing an unflinching eye at the overlapping darkness of greed and grime. From the punishing opening boxing match to the brutal last stand finale aboard a frigate, Karlson constructs a gritty timeline of pummeling knockdowns, trading jabs between those who usually take the punches and those gleefully dishing them out.

The film becomes a sinking sandbox of personal desperation, each character attempting to regain the lost power of their desires/expectations, only to be foiled time and again by that devil, chance. Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) lost his shot at becoming the Heavyweight champion of the world, and is now relegated to driving a cab and trying to support his demanding gold-digger wife. Karlson jettison’s Driscoll into a labyrinth of collective uncertainty, seamlessly linking him to diverse story-lines involving a jewel heist, a Broadway play, and multiple murders. But each snakes back to the street, and Karlson pits his characters against exteriors oozing with menace, as if the structures themselves are luring the characters to their demise.

99 River Street exists within a singular Noir universe, where the outside world passes by without much interference, making the characters’ entrapped situations all the more dire. Ernie’s rage consistently complicates his heroic acts – at one point he’s ready to beat his cheating wife to death. But Noir has always been about shades of evil, and Ernie’s occasional outbursts against the innocent pales in comparison to the brutal violence perpetrated by the greedy criminal underbelly.

Karlson understands how to orchestrate potent violence, both offscreen and on, and like his masterful The Phenix City Story, 99 River Street interconnects devilish betrayals with justified retributions. The power struggles in these films are always shifting, molding into the dangerous environment on display. But 99 River Street makes it personal, challenging the essence of the American dream by subverting its very value. Ernie pulls himself up by his bootstraps, only to find his hard work diabolically undermined by circumstance.

Invictus (Eastwood, 2009)

Desperate times often call for desperate measures. But in Clint Eastwood’s stale and disappointing biopic Invictus, newly elected and embattled South African  president Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) seems downright cavalier about his torn country on the precipice of racial revolt. It’s as if Mandela knows he’s  destined for a happy ending, that the forgone conclusion is just around the corner.

In a nicely stoic turn, Freeman paints Mandela as practically omniscient, achieving sweeping and rather easy unity by rallying his dispirited countrymen  around a common source of inspiration. Through Eastwood’s uncharacteristically rosy lens, decades of Apartheid trauma and violence get muted in favor of the  endless array of cheers, high fives, and slaps on the back for the country’s rejuvenated national Rugby team, the Spingbok’s.

Eastwood pushes his blunt-force symbolism from the first frame as Mandela’s motorcade races down a country road dissecting two soccer fields, one occupied by black children playing in tattered clothes and the other inhabited by a white team. The children cheer for the just-released Mandela while the grizzled old white Coach spells the turning of the tide – “This is the day our country went to the dogs.” Beyond just cliche, the sequence is incredibly lazy from a film-making standpoint, marking Mandela as a messiah that the everyday folks either revere or revile, with nothing in between.

These symbolic patterns continue throughout Invictus, paralleling Mandela’s quest to alleviate national concerns (about black retribution and white fear) by sparking interest in the World Cup of Rugby and his relationship with the Springbok’s captain, an honorable and loyal sportsmen named Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon). The two actors only share a few dynamic scenes, so their communication of message, spread by two men of the same ideological ilk, becomes the driving force of Invictus. Freeman delves deep into Mandela’s passion, bringing a grace to the man’s every movement and glance. But each actor looks stuck by the sugary world around them, stricken by the film’s limiting, plodding screenplay. Eastwood relies almost entirely on cross-cutting between the two men, as Mandela skirts around the country preaching his plan while Pienaar miraculously gets his mates into fighting shape.

Beyond the lead characters, Invictus attempts to build a national consensus, highlighting minor players of different races like Mandela’s bodyguards or Francois’ maid. Yet Eastwood’s direction and Tom Stern’s glossy cinematography becomes far too calculated, too polished to sustain any sense of suspense. Eastwood is content using the sports movie conventions to slowly build toward an inevitable finale, one devoid of excitement or tension. The ideas for unity are strong, but the execution lacks depth of conflict.

While the true story of Mandela and the Springboks remains undeniably essential in terms of our modern historical context, Eastwood’s treatment remains unforgivably syrupy. His didactic ideologies seep through the perfectly composed visuals, in turn feeding a ravenously sentimental musical score constantly complimenting the endless shots of crowds celebrating, blacks and whites rejoicing together under an open blue sky.

The glaring failure to convey subtext only heightens the knowledge of how great Eastwood can be with potentially hollow material. A Perfect World remains an indelible example, a beautifully constructed period piece on the clash between 1950’s childhood innocence and adult sin, poetically exploring the nuances of each character beneath the surface. But unlike World, the heart and soul of Invictus exists entirely for easy digestion, without doubt of the process or end result. Invictus not only falls prey to the pitfalls of the Sports genre, but also becomes a tired time-capsule of personal wistfulness, ignoring the glaring complexities of the social and political situations occurring beyond the playing field, while joyously reveling in the befuddlement of the spectacle. Victory and unity are only this harmonious in the fantasy dreamscape of Hollywood.

Survival of the Dead (Romero, 2010)

The zombie universe of George Romero has been growing more contained with each passing entry in the series. Land of the Dead (2005), while essentially a glorified action film, still expands the scope of the narrative through deafening references to political and social satire occurring on a grand level. The evil of corporate consumerism turns to artistic revolt in Diary of the Dead (2007), which inverses Romero’s standard genre guise by pushing both the plot and character development/commentary into the maddeningly artificial world of the Internet. Both films contain a number of fascinating critiques of Bush-era doctrine and declining human rights, yet each fails to reach the narrative potency of Romero’s earlier Horror films.

Now comes Survival of the Dead, an even more straightforward continuation involving a band of rouge National Guardsmen seen briefly in Diary of the Dead. It’s two weeks since the beginning of the apocalypse and Romero jettisons his lead characters toward isolationist refuge on Plum Island, a possible safe-haven off the coast of Delaware. But the island contains its own bitter feud between two Irish families battling for political and social control over the Island’s future prospects. Romero’s contrived plot yields little new material, but his care-free attitude toward pacing makes Survival of the Dead feel seamlessly grotesque, as if the world has finally absurdly caved in on itself.

The competing points of view on morality and sacrifice create the film’s only biting satire, a hardened look at modern day slavery, human instinct, and political oppression. During the film’s daring middle act, Romero pushes these thematics front and center, daring the viewer to identify the subtext in the leftover carnage and mayhem. But Survival of the Dead turns stale during the poorly-paced climax, failing both as critique and cinema, bastardizing Western iconography by hollowing out the genre’s authenticity and ideology.

Survival of the Dead ends with a stunningly iconic image of conflict, but instead of signifying tangible depth it highlights Romero’s progression toward centralized indulgence. Romero has long been a director of great vision, yet his stories are growing increasingly repetitive, benignly horrific during times of universal unrest. More than ever, we need him to redefine his gaze.

The White Ribbon (Haneke, 2009)

Michael Haneke unearths the jarring cycles of life and death, connecting menacing physical landscapes with man’s breaking mental terrain. The Austrian director slowly unveils these patterns, linking the changing seasons with shifting ideologies and fears, juxtaposing natural order and man-made sin to personify the instinctual brutality residing under the surface. Told as a gap-riddled omniscient memory, Haneke’s The White Ribbon meticulously deconstructs the actions and reactions of a small German town (existing in seeming normalcy immediately preceding WWI) with this glaring attention to both natural and psychological detail. Envy, greed, and sloth rot the communal apple at its core, weaving an epic tapestry of mistrust surrounding the relationship between individual and community. Relying on the assumptions of human behavior, Haneke slowly erodes the face of tradition and tranquility to show a darker unmentioned reality hiding in the shadows, one founded on the brutal bastardization of family and faith. So secrets and lies beget retribution, and revolting and revulsive acts come and go, inevitably saying more about the collective than the perpetrators committing them.

Bypassing standard narrative conventions, Haneke divulges symbols and themes by spending long passages of time with his many characters, inspecting their daily routines for gaps and fissures in morality, tying each with a specific act of indifference or guilt. And something is certainly amiss, as Haneke’s brilliantly poised camera catches glimpses of chilling menace in the corners of every frame. Whether it’s two older children being scolded by their preacher father, or a vengeful son hacking away at his employer’s lettuce patch, these actions feel fatefully connected to the cultural environment on display. The striking black and white visuals heighten every subtle movement and sound, framing characters in wide vistas flanked by trees and fields, hallowed by bleached out skies. Starkness lives and breathes in between the edits, whispering warnings to a community diving headfirst down an ideological rabbit hole.

While Haneke focuses on the subversion’s of adulthood, The White Ribbon achieves it’s most devastating dichotomy of horror and purity through the eyes of children, characters existing largely on the tragic periphery. These kids astutely watch their parents and neighbors go about their business, soaking in the wtinessed anger, aggression, and violence like water to a sponge, ultimately continuing the cycle of degradation. Their misguided and fragmented behavior proves the future is not bright for this town, and in turn Germany as a nation. And even though the initial assumptions of guilt planted in the horrific opening scenes are never completely unfounded, Haneke is more interested in the subtle decline of justice than solving the many specific crimes. Most of the motivations behind the many indiscretions are entirely familiar, lessening the impact of specifically heinous moments. But the overall mosaic artfully constructs fear and suffering on both a personal and epic level.

The White Ribbon begins and ends like a dream, told through haunted voice-over narration by the town’s mild-mannered teacher (Christian Friedel). It’s a last gasp of memory wrapped in uncertainty, but more than anything it’s a warning. The Teacher’s words drift into the either, lost in the cloudy haze of a massive historical event about to change the world, foreshadowing an even greater homegrown evil on the horizon. But Haneke’s telling examination of human and mother nature is far more complex than a simple line of terrible dominos falling into place. The White Ribbon confronts a terrible cycle of indifference, showing the seeds of national destruction sewn by the farmers, teachers, pastors, and parents themselves, infecting the essence of youthful compassion through apathy and fear, slowly circulating poison into the children’s moral water supply. This lethal cocktail is not specific to Germany, but universal in scope and potency, invariably festering for generations to come.