Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Shutter Island" (from Paramount "Vantage"); Scorsese's horror film about the treatment of the mentally ill, in the 50s


Shutter Island” provided a personal reminiscence for me (as had “Spellbound”, reviewed earlier here). I had a bout of inpatient psychiatric treatment at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in late 1962 as an experiment after my college expulsion. And one reaction immediately was that, why Hollywood sensationalizes or even “romanticizes” the treatment of “mental illness”, covering it as it really unfolds would be a real challenge for independent film. (At the moment, another famous film comes to mind: Milos Forman’s 1975 film, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” with Jack Nicholson). Another remote comparison is David Greene’s “The Shuttered Room” (WB) from the UK in 1967.

Paramount (some sources still give the film as Paramount Vantage, making this $60 million production an official “art movie”) is proud of this new bloated 138-minute gothic offering from Phoenix Pictures, directed by Martin Scorsese, based on the novel by Dennis Lehand. It’s an experience at the movies on a large 2.35:1 screen (I saw it at a Regal in Arlington last night, nearly sold out). But it comes across as a stage play.

The set up is bidirectional. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a troubled WWII veteran (Teddy Daniels) who had helped free the concentration camps. He arrives to this coastal New England island housing a supermax facility for the criminally insane, in 1954, on a ferry boat, seasick, with partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), as a US Marshall (he thinks he is one), investigating the disappearance or escape of a female patient whose history sounds like that of Susan Smith, who drowned her children in South Carolina in 1994 (typical account here). But in time we learn more of Teddy’s own personal past, which bears some troubling similarities. A hurricane bears down on the “little tall island” . You guessed it, pretty soon Teddy is trapped as if he were the escaped patient.

Ben Kingsley plays the “compassionate” Dr. Cawley, and Max Von Sydow is his henchman. Michelle Williams is Teddy’s ex-wife, whom we learn early died in a mysterious fire which Teddy will have to explain.

The music for the film is most effective. Gustav Mahler’s Piano Quartet in A Minor, in one movement, is played a lot (and named by Teddy, who knows music), as is modern dissonant orchestral music by Ligeti, Penderecki, Scelsi, and Feldman, Cage, and many others (Wikipedia gives all the music).

The Lighthouse, which was said to house the secrets of the place, provided for me an interesting metaphor: it looks like “The Tower of Ned” in my own 2004 horror screenplay for Project Greenlight, “Baltimore Is Missing.” (I even made up a tagline, “do not go near the Tower of Ned”, based on a dream.)

My own perception, however, of how mental illness was portrayed back in the early 1960s (a few years after the setting of this film) is important to me, at least. Society seemed set up as a competition. Those who “won” got to be in charge and tell those who didn’t compete as well what to do, in exchange for having to take care of them. A lot of this happened in the family. Marriage was not just a commitment of love, it was seen as an achievement. Those who couldn’t fit in to this pattern rebelled, and sometimes were deemed “ill” by the “system.” ("They" would say, "it's nothing to be ashamed of". Really? From NIH, I still remember the cries of one patient at night, with a nurse threatening to give it to her "in the muscle" to calm her. They would write up copious notes of everything we said or did. I have an FOIA copy of hundreds of pages which I used in researching my 1997 book!) Of course, since the early 60s a lot has changed. Social justice became a much more individualized matter, with modern ideas about gender equality, race, and sexual orientation. But it still seems true that if the “system” deems someone mentally ill and incompetent (calls the person an ("gd") "M.P."), there is little he or she can do. This big horror film makes the point well. Inside Shutter Island is a life of true horror.


The official site for the film is here.

The AP has an embeddable video of Scorsese and DiCaprio discussing the film (yop, the price of embedding is a commercial that you have to watch first; it’s not free now).



Wikipedia attribution link for Bass lighthouse at Acadia National Park, Maine. (Doesn't this film remind one of Stephen King after all? But it was filmed in Massachusetts, not Maine.)

Picture below: Lighthouse at Elk Neck State Park, Chesapeake Bay, northern end (near Aberdeen Proving Grounds, MD).

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