Twists, Turns & Bedlam
The credits for Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island tell us that it’s based on a Dennis Lehane novel. So it is, but its real source (and perhaps the inspiration for the novel as well) is the 1919 German expressionistic horror movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In fact, Shutter works the Caligari narrative arc so doggedly that it’s virtually a remake of the classic. Once again, a decent young man who is on the trail of a psychopath—a somnambulist in Caligari, an insane arsonist here—investigates a doctor who might be a dangerous charlatan controlling the psychopath. Our hero, a U.S. marshal (Leonardo DiCaprio), goes to a Boston Harbor island where a psychiatrist (Ben Kingsley) presides over an insane asylum. The marshal is officially investigating the disappearance of a female inmate, but he is also hunting the arsonist whose crime resulted in the death of the marshal’s wife. After several conspiracies and much violence, a final plot twist brings marshal and doctor into a radically different relationship. Every viewer I’ve talked with enjoyed the surprise ending, but for me it canceled everything that preceded it instead of deepening the tale.
Shutter Island belongs to a venerable genre, the madhouse shocker, examples of which are such unpretentious movies as Shock Corridor and Bedlam. As happens in those movies, the hero is constantly frog-marched by the irresistible hand of the scriptwriter (Laeta Kalogridis) into situations in which gibbering madmen jump out of the shadows at him. Scorsese’s film also contains horror-movie images that might have been produced on Universal Studio’s sound stages in the 1930s for Frankenstein or The Wolf Man: a storm-swept coast, a lighthouse where evil experiments are carried out, hurricane winds sweeping through a forest. All of this should have been nothing more than retro fun—Scorsese taking a cinematic busman’s holiday and inviting us along for the ride.
But Shutter Island is a B movie that wants to be upscale. Rather than settling for some good frights, the director (following the novel, I presume) drags in the Holocaust, the 1950s psychiatric debates about the value of lobotomy vs. drug therapy, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations, and the army’s Cold War use of the latest psychiatric findings. True, the surprise ending relegates most of those matters to the shadows of paranoia, but before that happens, the poor little wannabe neogothic script sinks under the weight of all this political self-importance.
Throughout the movie, pretentiousness mars the imagery as well as the plot. Consider the World War II flashback in which DiCaprio and his platoon come upon a death camp where the bodies of dead Jews are laid out on the ground in arty patterns. Have corpses ever looked so nicely kempt or survivors so poignantly mournful? And when the camp guards are mowed down by the enraged GIs, the choreographed waves of falling bodies might have evoked the envy of Busby Berkeley. Of course, this isn’t intended as realism but as the memory of a tormented man, but would the memories of such a man be so gracefully designed?
Nineteen years ago, Terrence Rafferty wrote of Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear that “the veneer of moral seriousness and psychological complexity that Scorsese brings to the enterprise feels like an attempt to convince himself that he’s not doing what he’s doing”—that is, perpetrating a piece of schlock.** Shutter Island is a tad cleverer than Cape Fear, but the director is still propping himself up with big issues and fancy visuals. His filmmaking, once so deeply personal and vital in Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and Kundun, has become overly calculated and slick. Once a great painter, he’s now a museum director copying the masterpieces on his walls.
The Ghost Writer is another melodrama by a notable director (Roman Polanski) that brims with conspiracies and cover-ups and concludes with a startling revelation that makes you rethink everything that led up to it. Here, though, the terminal twist doesn’t negate the substance of the story but rather supports a cynical vision of how the politically powerful operate.
The script (by the director and Robert Harris, based on a Harris novel) relates the adventures of a ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) who takes on the job of assembling the autobiography of a former prime minister, Adam Lang (think Tony Blair), currently under investigation by the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Aggravating the charge of consenting to an accused terrorist’s rendition and fatal torture is the public anger at Lang for having engineered Britain’s entry into the Iraq War.
Our hero, whisked to Lang’s Martha’s Vineyard hideaway, plugs away at a turgid manuscript left unfinished by a previous hireling who died under mysterious circumstances. Of course, the question soon becomes: Will the current ghost inherit the fate of his predecessor if he discovers too much?
Though you can discover for yourself what that “too much” includes, its general import is soon clear: powerful people—corporation heads, academics with agendas, undercover agents, high-level government functionaries—can reach their goals by attaching themselves to an elected leader. He can take the heat after they take what they want.
We may deplore the conduct that has brought Roman Polanski into disgrace and confinement, but the seventy-seven-year-old director’s craftsmanship still produces insights and frissons. While Shutter Island pummels the viewer with gothic hysteria, The Ghost Writer insinuates a bleak menace that unsettles us while never insulting our intelligence, a menace grounded in the hero’s growing awareness that he is stalled on the dangerous periphery of unseen but murderous events. When he arrives at the coastal retreat, he’s recognized as a necessary servant yet nobody really welcomes him. Everyone surrounding the PM—wife Ruth, the head of staff, various secretaries, bodyguards, chauffeurs, even the maid—seems part of a cell enclosing Lang, and the cell’s membrane isn’t even semipermeable. The Ghost (the script, as if reflecting the entourage’s contempt, doesn’t bother to name our hero) must float around this inner circle, at first uncomfortable and finally imperiled. As he pieces together the truth, he senses that the membrane is hardening and that those inside the cell have judged him expendable. The movie becomes a tissue of danger signals: a maid’s frightened glance; the wife not bothering to return her husband’s wave as he disembarks from a plane; the cold stares of bodyguards; the way the entire house goes into blackout and lockdown when the writer enters the wrong password into a computer; Lang refusing to acknowledge acquaintance with the very people who are smiling over his shoulder in certain photographs.
Polanski and Harris neatly employ modern gadgets as traditional spy fiction devices. Seventy years ago, an Eric Ambler thriller might have had its hero find a secret diary or a revealing letter; in The Ghost Writer we get suspicious phone numbers listed on a murdered man’s cell phone, and a car’s GPS takes the Ghost on a trek to one of the powers-behind-the-throne.
The cast performs lithely. I’ve never been a Ewan McGregor fan, finding his acting weightless and his personality pip-squeaky. But under Polanski’s direction he’s acquired a low-burning, dogged strength that makes us root for the Ghost. Pierce Brosnan is one of those actors who are so handsome that it’s easy to forget they’re also talented (like George Clooney). As Lang, he pulls off a neat trick by making the harried politician simultaneously charismatic and weak, so that we can imagine how he rose to power, misused it, and lost it. Similarly, the redoubtable Tom Wilkinson endows a mysterious American academic with both tweediness and menace. Kim Cattrall nicely carries over her jaded sexiness from Sex and the City into the role of the chief of staff.
But the most memorable performance belongs to Olivia Williams as Ruth Lang (do not think Cherie Blair). British actresses are often good at communicating bottled-up rage at traitorous males, with a high gloss of witty sarcasm. (Think of Lindsay Duncan, Glenda Jackson, and, lately, Kate Winslet.) Williams seethes with the best of them, but her anger is mixed with neediness, self-doubt, and sheer desperation. She keeps Ruth ambiguous, her nature a mystery that even the revelations awaiting us at The Ghost Writer’s conclusion can’t dispel.
** This sentence is a corrected version of the one that appeared in print, which attributed this quotation to David Denby.
Related: Richard Alleva reviews Scorsese's 'The Departed'
About the Author
Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.