Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"The end of you."

Shutter Island / The (old!) Wicker Man: Final Cut

     Happy Halloween, everyone!  Let's start by talking about the great Dante Ferretti, Italian production designer extraordinaire who currently has a beautiful exhibition of his work on display at The Museum of Modern Art here in NYC (through February 9).  This sweet little old Italian man (at least that's how he came off when he introduced the first film screening at the opening ceremony) began his career working on Pier Paolo Pasolini's later work, including the notorious Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom (hell, all Pasolini's later movies were pretty notorious), and has since made several movies for Martin Scorcese, starting with The Age of Innocence.  If you live in the area and are a fan of movies, take a look.  Along with great big portions of set pieces arranged through the museum showcasing his work, MoMA is screening many of his best realized movies (still on deck:  Interview with the Vampire, Casino, Hamlet).  It is so worth your time.
     Also worth your time is the little movie Scorcese released in 2010 between his Oscar winning The Departed (yawn) and the well received (and among the more engaging 3D features made thus far) HugoShutter Island is just shy of being anomalous among the works of Scorcese:  It has nothing to do with NY, does not involve a single made-man, and does not star Leonardo DiCaprio (hahaha, just kidding -- of COURSE it stars Leonardo DiCaprio).  I initially dismissed it as a thriller with a [ I have to stop right here for the spoiler announcement.  OK?  I'm gonna go ahead now.  You've been warned.] twist you can see from miles away (you will, too) and didn't bother going to see it in the theater.  When I saw it later that year on video, I felt foolish, because the so-called "twist" was somewhat superfluous -- the story told was still rich, heartbreaking and maybe one of the few Scorcese movies I've found genuinely moving.  As such, I took the opportunity to see it again at MoMA on the big screen.
     In terms of visual style and building a sense of dread, its closest relative might be Cape Fear, arguably Scorcese's weirdest and most disturbing movie to date.  I don't think Shutter Island is as operatically bizarre (although there is a drowning scene that rivals the one at Cape Fear's close), but the tone and atmosphere call back to that strangeness.  Shutter Island, written for the screen by Dennis Lehane ("The Wire", Mystic River) from his novel, evokes an interesting mix of prior Scorcese pictures you may not expect -- Cape Fear for sure, but also the visual texture of Kundun (full disclosure:  I am that asshole that sincerely likes Kundun) and, maybe strangest of all, the warmth (a rarity in his movies) and sympathy for characters not seen since The Age of Innocence (though one does later feel the "hug" in Hugo, too).
     Shutter Island opens in mist and fog, a shot held eerily long with no immediate music cues present until one sees something of a ghost ship emerge from its cloudy depths.  This opening is only one of the first metaphors for fractured memory that haunts the rest of the story.  No sooner are we introduced to our primary characters, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), then are we thrust into a series of jarring shots, cut with such speed (and alarming, freaky freeze frames thrown in for good measure) that we're immediately as disoriented as the seasick marshal.  [Nerd alert:  It took me a little while to figure out that what was throwing me off in this scene was shot after shot of total 180º rule breakage; nice one, Marty & DP Robert Richardson!]  Following some brisk exposition we move to the action proper:  An investigation into the disappearance of a violent patient (Emily Mortimer) on the eponymous prison island.  Ostensibly a floating asylum for the criminally insane, the island leads our hero, already dealing with Dachau liberation-level PTSD on top of a tragically dead wife (Michelle Williams in fever dream sequences), to spars with head shrinking medical professionals (including a pitch-perfect as always Ben Kingsley) and psychotic patients alike for the duration of the story as he pursues his missing quandary (along with "Prisoner" style clues -- "The Law of 4", "Who is 67?", et al.).  As the spectre of his wife warns "this would be the end of you" while he walks through the facility's wards and rocky terrain (which include portentous, persistent images of smoke and water), so too do we move along Daniels' broken psyche, until it finally intertwines inextricably with the island and the inhabitants therein.
     It's a credit to Lehane's writing and Scorcese's direction that, whether you figure things out immediately or not until the end, the story still manages to satisfy, never completely misdirecting from what it completely hints at from the get go.  It benefits from relying on our main character's subconscious obsessions -- memories of his wife's death by arson (and as he specifies, "not the fire, but the smoke"), an SS officer he would not grant a final mercy to, the deaths of countless Nazi guards punished for their acts -- and consequently establishing that the viewpoint we're most privy to is unreliable at best.  Some of the most truly terrifying horror comes from realizing you can't even trust the person telling the story.

     It was during the moment where the ship approaches the dock of the island that I shuddered and realized how much it reminded me of another creep fest (tis the season) I'd just rewatched on the big screen for its "final cut": The Wicker Man.  Please, not the one with Nicolas Cage!  The ORIGINAL one with Christopher Lee, Edward ("The Equalizer") Woodward and, uh, the songs.  Sergeant Neal Howie (Woodward) is also called to a remote island in pursuit of a girl mysteriously vanished, only to be faced with his own personal demons and a potentially malevolent patriarch with ulterior minded islanders.  Both our heroes also bear witness to their original purpose evaporate into smoke right at the moment it's too late for them to turn back, bricking themselves into their own emotional prisons along the way; both movies have emotionally devastating ends.  I'd originally watched The Wicker Man as a double feature preceding Don't Look Now, which in turn had it's own grief-soaked protagonist whose perception of the world had been warped beyond self-preservation.  This new cut of The Wicker Man disposes of a tongue-in-cheek intro text thanking "the people of [the] island", restores the original order of scenes, adds a sequence mid-way to provide another cohesive clue, a shot or two added to a montage of Howie making further investigations into his missing person, and a chilling coda to the finale.  While these changes create greater narrative cohesion, something is dissatisfyingly lost  -- while they help in making better sense of character development throughout, it stifles the rhythm of the picture and takes away from the overall feeling of disorientation, weirdness and dread the viewer experiences; for example, meeting Lee's Lord Summerisle sooner in this version gives greater credence to his having pulled strings all along, yet defangs the impact of not seeing him until almost half-way through the shorter version.  Much of how one follows the previous version relies on picking up bits of business as you go; having this version be more explicit takes much of the fun out of keeping up with the narrative.  This intended version is still worth seeing whether you're familiar with the material or not, but like both Marshal Daniels and Sergeant Howie, it leaves you pondering so much for the best intentions.

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