Shutter Island

The style and manner of Shutter Island seems to leave the viewer with one of three reactions: a.) Exhaustion; b.) Elation; c.) Martin Scorsese, W.T.F.?! (The third option, admittedly, is not incompatible with the first two.) Where do I fall? Well, when I left the theater, neurons were firing like a blitzkrieg in my brain. During an ecstatic car ride home, which surprisingly did not inspire any patrol car lights to strobe in my wake, I was ready to drop such bombs as “brilliant” and “genius.” After a warm glass of milk, and a good night’s sleep, my opinion now verges on c.)—conditionally, that is—but b.) has not been completely displaced. Yet I think I have a good idea why so many reviewers have settled on a.).

A pair of U.S. Marshals—Teddy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck (Mark Ruffalo)—disembark a mist-shrouded ferry and set foot on Shutter Island, home of the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, a maximum-security prison in the Massachusetts Bay. One of the inmates—whom the chief psychologist, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), refers to as “patients”—has gone missing. Rachel (Emily Mortimer) returns, inexplicably and without a scratch. As storm clouds converge on the island, Teddy becomes increasingly paranoid; its jagged shores are littorally inescapable. The authorities have ignored his; they’ve taken his gun, withheld paperwork, and worst of all, the whole shebang seems to be under the sway of a former Nazi (Max von Sydow). Another Rachel appears (a razor-sharp Patricia Clarkson); the House Un-American Activities Committee’s name is dropped (it’s the McCarthy era—1954); and Teddy suffers from migraines and oracular dreams: visions of his wife (Michelle Williams)—who was supposedly burnt to a crisp by an arsonist who happens to be committed on the island—alternate with the suffering children of Dachau, which Teddy helped liberate as a G.I.

This is a gothic storm of a movie, and it’s awash with melodramatic touches and nods to old films noir. Yes, the Bernard Herrmannian horns honk at you like traffic in Midtown Manhattan; and, yes, the investigators wear fedoras; and Teddy’s subordinate calls him “Boss”; and the shrinks speak in slippery platitudes while wearing tweeds; and the inmates jump out of dark corners and give you the willies. But all these touches add to the dense, painterly texture of the film. According to A.O. Scott, Scorsese “forces you to study the threads on the rug he is preparing … to pull out from under you.” I didn’t feel “forced,” but found the rug perfectly sewn; each thread can be stitched back together. (It’s a rare pleasure to have thrillers like this exercise one’s mental needle.) Salon compares Shutter Island to a film by David Lynch—but Lynch’s meanings don’t conform to a logical structure; this can be reconstructed in a manner that is absolutely, pellucidly, meticulously sane. Is it a work of depth and subtlety? Well—definitely not subtlety. But does that mean that Scorsese is, as David Edelstein asserts, “farther from reality than his hero is”? Formal perfection is always a little supernatural. At any rate, I prefer this maniacal professionalism—Scrosese’s 40-year endeavor to blend opera with genre filmmaking—to that of A Serious Man, which was a snub to anyone who tried to parse the Coens’ threads.

In a film this dense and dynamic, consistency can be both miraculous and conservative. When Scott—whose evaluation is uncharacteristically tsk-tsk-tsky—calls Shutter Island “airless,” I can understand why: There isn’t much breathing room. He and Edelstein, critics whom I admire, fall into rubrics a.) and c.). I can only offer, without risk of being called a spoilsport, part of why I’m still sympathetic to b.). Scorsese is no stranger to madness; his work has always been deliriant, and his oeuvre is spiked with psychopaths. Taxi Driver is one of the best character studies ever financed by Hollywood, and one of the most vertiginous downward spirals. But while you’re watching it, you know that cabbie is a little bit loopy. Watching Shutter Island, you may start to wonder about yourself. The third-act revelation may not be entirely original, but I was so caught up in the cobwebs of rationalization that it had the bite of a spider. (Perhaps some willful gullibility is required for the venom to take effect.) Shutter Island doesn’t connect to societal upheaval the way Taxi Driver and Mean Streets did; or celebrity culture the way The King of Comedy did; or the Patriot Act the way The Departed did. But it might prompt you to examine your own susceptibility to delusion; it might induce you to think like a madman.

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Crazy Heart

According to Bad Blake, the fading country-and-Western star in Crazy Heart, a song is good if you think you’ve heard it before when you listen to it the first time. This philosophy seems to be shared by Scott Cooper, who wrote, produced, and directed this adaptation of Thomas Cobb’s novel. It’s less an aesthetic principle than a prescription for playing it safe; but there are certain tunes that play again and again, and the redemption of the down-and-out country crooner always hits that “truthful” note—because in honky-tonk, it’s never auto-tuned.

Bad—who, at 57, leaves his belt unbuckled and putters between gigs at bowling alleys in a ’78 Suburban—is about as “authentic” as they come. He’s a little testy about being outmoded by superstars like Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell)—a former protégé—but Bad’s temper isn’t akin to his stage name. His anger at leaving four ex-wives and a son behind, and his obstinance about making a comeback—which would be a Sweet deal—boomerang at him in unlimited refills of bourbon and unending cartons of smokes. Everybody’s good to Bad but Bad. There’s only one real surprise in the plot—and it’s farfetched enough that it doesn’t feel quite earned—but the plot isn’t what critics and award-bearers have set their sights on.

Enter Jeff Bridges, who makes Bad look good. If Bridges isn’t as flamboyant as other actors of his generation (Pacino, Streep, De Niro, Hoffman, et al), it’s because he doesn’t enter his characters through their pores; he holds them tight, snuggles them—he’s a protective, sentimental actor in the best sense. And his innate combination of skill, generosity, gentleness, and humor is intensely ingratiating. (Even when he played a villain, in Iron Man, his likability couldn’t be subverted.) Sentimentality can be physically demanding. Bad looks like a bristly yeti, but what country singer of his mold hasn’t grown a little mold? Bridges suggests a man who’s given in to the fungus. Poetry punches through fungus, and Bridges’s emotional range is poetic.

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the small-time reporter who helps Bad see the light at the end of the bottle; she’s the one who finally scrapes the grime off Bad’s Chia head. The journalist says that she blushes easily because her capillaries are close to the skin. Everything this woman feels is close to her skin, and the movie overemphasizes her vulnerability. (In one scene, she breaks down after Bad composes lyrics on her bed. She feels unworthy of his talent, and mawkishly assumes that he’ll forget her.) And yet, Gyllenhaal’s eccentricity—her movements are sinuous, like a love-struck stoner’s—suggests that layers of complexity have been battered inward. Her effervescent performance gets at something that the movie itself doesn’t quite.

But, within its limited framework, Crazy Heart is a competent, likable film. There’s some zing to the dialogue, and—since T-Bone Burnett served as Bad’s lyricist—an air of authenticity about the score. (Bad’s repertoire indeed reminds me of music I’ve heard before—even Bridges’s sonorous voice.) Cooper doesn’t get as much out of the Southwestern landscapes as I might have liked; the bounteous mesas authorize natives like Bad to indulge in their freedom to self-destruct. But there’s at least one shot that’s been burned into my hippocampus: Bad, sharp and recumbent in the foreground, with the chintzy Christmas lights of a dive forming a blurry constellation behind him. It seems to capture the romance in the rundown, the fleeting perks of the peripatetic barfly. (Bad’s touring life is both Up in the Air in economy class and a domestication of The Wrestler.) Contrast this shot with one of Robert Duvall—as Bad’s loudmouth bartender/cheerleader/buddy—spouting off life-goes-on lyrics in a rowboat, as the camera pulls back, bestowing meaning from above. [Yawns.] But even if Cooper’s circulatory-system lunacy is hardly in evidence, he has a knack for bringing out the heart murmurs of others.

The Wolfman

If the hair on my knuckles spiked, the muscles in my back contorted, and I let out a bloodcurdling howl during The Wolfman, it was probably just a yawn. Maybe my failure of intuition—and unwarranted heeding of publicity—had left me crabby. But shouldn’t the remake of a 1941 monster-movie classic indulge in just a little hearty, old-timey hokum? Anthony Hopkins, prancing around in a velvety bathrobe, makes for a glazed and grizzled ham, but the bread that makes the sandwich (Benicio del Toro and Emily Blunt) is disappointingly white. An apter epicurean metaphor involves fast food. If I’m vacationing in the English moors, circa Oscar Wilde, I won’t want to spend tea time at McDonalds. Heart-attack editing has become the McDonalds of horror films; it’s quick, ubiquitous, easy, and icky. The filmmakers here have gormandized it, and left us with some dry wolf droppings that tarnish the belle époque trim.

The Wolfman isn’t woefully incompetent or wake-up-drooling awful. I felt a tad impatient, yet never quite bored; Joe Johnston directs at a silver bullet’s pace. The lack of imagination, however, drowsed rather than roused me. This movie makes Daybreakers seem as innovative as Citizen Kane. I wasn’t expecting Young Frankenstein—or even Shaun of the Dead. But is Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula too much to ask for?

A Single Man

In A Single Man, fantasy and reality blend—with more concord than the filmmakers perhaps intended. We’re once again in the An Education period—1962—though, this time, the British protagonist has swum across the pond, and then some, to Santa Monica. George (Colin Firth), a middle-age professor of English, has only recently become single; his partner of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode—the fruity übermensch from Watchmen), has died in a car crash. The bulk of the film is set a few months later—on the day that George has designated as his last.

Until 40ish minutes had crawled by, I wondered if I was being engorged by a glossy fashion magazine; pages’ worth of glittering eyeballs and dishy male forms—slowed down so that the movement of each tendon was perceptible—lapped at me like an unwelcome tongue. Lest one prematurely exclaims “homophobe!,” allow me to qualify: What palled on me was not the movie’s blatant homoeroticism, but its sexualization of everything. If everything’s sexy, then nothing is. When the pigtailed girl next door and a hound that resembles a pet that the couple once owned are given the same erotic charge that the shirtless members of a college tennis team get, the professor’s devotion to true-love-forever seems reduced to a hard-on for anything that crosses his path.

One might assume that the first-time director, Tom Ford—the quondam couturier—is interested less in capturing George’s emotions than he is accolades for artiness. But the direction of A Single Man isn’t flashy—or trashy—the way that it was for, say, Inglourious Basterds. When George makes his suicidal intentions apparent to the audience by cleaning both his pistol and safe-deposit box, the purple haze begins to clear. And when he decides to spend his last night drinking gin and tonics, puffing pink cigarettes, and grooving to Bossa nova with his old chum Charley (Julianne Moore), the movie hits its stride. She’s been waiting—to no avail—for her “poof” to switch teams; they fooled around when he was a free agent. Moore gives a wonderful slinky quality to this “available woman” who drinks too much alcohol and gets drunk on regret—another noxious solution. She brings out something in Firth that nobody else in the cast does: a spiky, peakish irony that usually lies dormant beneath his rigid, academic mask. She asks what his plans are for the weekend; he says it’s going to be quiet.

Firth gives a good, restrained performance; but, sometimes, the Moore, the merrier. In several of his scenes without her, such as those of him on campus, he too easily embodies that ennobling cliché of the rock-hard prig with a soft and gooey core. If it doesn’t belittle his pain, a sense of proportion can be appropriate. So, when straight-faced George labors to pinpoint the most Feng Shui way to blow his brains out, and gets anal about which way his corpse should be discovered, one can relax—things really aren’t as bathetic as George thinks.

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The Messenger

Watching The Messenger, I felt as if I was moderating a group-therapy circle—a support group for veterans whose lives have been torn asunder. There seems to be something movie-ish withheld from this movie; the plot is scaled-back and purposeful: It has ends to meet. But its self-abnegation seems like a sacrifice to higher values; the filmmakers wanted to get at an unadulterated truth. So far as public-service movies go, The Messenger is a beaut.

As members of the Army’s Casualty Notification Service, SSgt. Montgomery (Ben Foster) and his superior, Sgt. Stone (Woody Harrelson), embody the movie’s thesis that impersonality is impossible. One cannot kill another in combat and write it off as a business expense, just as one cannot convey sympathy to the survivors of the fallen by way of a stony mien and a one-size-fits-all script. The Secretary of the Army’s brusque condolences are to compassion what C-Rations are to Mama’s cherry pie. Stone, who served in Desert Storm but saw no action, has retreated into the tough-guy cynicism of a misfired life; Montgomery, whose horrors are fresher and more acute, refuses to keep up the pretense of equanimity for long. When Olivia (Samantha Morton), whose husband has perished in Iraq, is seen drying a man’s shirt on her clothesline, Stone assumes this now-single mother has been unfaithful; Montgomery makes the effort to determine otherwise. Refreshingly, his contravention of protocol doesn’t threaten his commission. This movie is concerned with the psychological price—and the ethical.

Foster’s solider has a code of ethics in shambles; a fire’s burning him inside-out, and he’s restrained from airing his anxieties for fear of shooting flames. His ex-girlfriend (Jena Malone, appropriately tender in her few scenes) can’t handle his stress; she’s left him for someone who looks like he could have been one of Seth Rogen’s friends in Pineapple Express—not exactly a “catch.” Foster’s wiry body and careworn, gravely voice create a level of dissonance. There’s a Jack Nicholsonian edge to his diction, even though Harrelson’s playing the equivalent of the Nicholson role in The Last Detail—in which two Navy lifers drag a petty thief (Randy Quaid!) to his unduly long prison sentence, but abandon their plans of ditching the boy and blowing his per diem on themselves, and show him a good time instead. Harrelson is the Nicholson figure because he’s the morbid comic relief—the crazy uncle who takes you to get your first lap dance, but drinks himself to sleep, and passes out in a puddle of tears. Stone has actually abandoned the bottle for a twist of lemon into a mug of hot water. But Harrelson still shows us the thirst: After the sergeant squeezes out the juice, he tears the pulp off the rind with a wolfish gnash.

Morton is harder to pin down; her Olivia is almost ethereal. Like the others, she seems to have put a cork on her inner turmoil, but that’s left her washed out and foggy. Her dulcet voice is distant, ambiguous; when Montgomery flirts with her, the scene is eerily laggard. What they share isn’t love, exactly. Morton is only three years Foster’s senior, and yet, between the mom-pants and the hot-mess hairdo, she seems prematurely aged; Olivia is so shell-shocked—vicariously, through her late husband—that she’s become diffuse. It’s a fascinating, left-field portrayal of the modern war wife: a fecund counterpoint to Natalie Portman’s would-be widow in Brothers. Morton’s uncanny refusal to play a broad-spirited beauty jibes with Montgomery’s being rejected by such a beauty; perhaps the notion is trite, but this dejected vet may crave something more than skin-deep—something without a physical property for him to immolate.

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