Saturday, February 20, 2010

Shutter Island and the Martin Scorsese problem

What do we want from Martin Scorsese? The veteran director came back from a period of commercial obscurity with Gangs of New York in 2002, and his last three narrative features were all nominated for multiple Oscars, including Best Picture (and The Departed won it in 2007). Scorsese's gone from an old master noodling in diverse genres to a prestige machine whose every film is expected to be an awards juggernaut. Is that the expectation we should be putting on the man who made Kundun and After Hours and New York, New York? The Oscar movie is a genre unto itself, and designing films for maximum awards potential can be its own kind of artistic straitjacket.

So in a way the release-date shift of Scorsese's latest, Shutter Island, away from the end-of-year awards crunch and into the typically dead month of February could be taken as a good sign: The pressure is off for this to be anything other than an entertaining genre movie, a chance for Scorsese to fool around in a new mode (the pulp thriller) without the pressure of delivering an Important Film. Except he doesn't seem to be approaching it that way: In its casting of a parade of heavy-hitters, its bloated running time and its epic style, Shutter Island very much plays like a self-consciously Important Film, which is at odds with its firmly B-level story, a ridiculously overheated tale of a U.S. marshal (Scorsese muse Leonardo DiCaprio) investigating the disappearance of an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

Scorsese takes this material very, very seriously, and in one way that's a good thing - this script could easily have been handed over to some anonymous hack to get it made on the cheap, and it would have ended up a clumsy waste of time. Scorsese invests every bit of his visual inventiveness and rapport with actors in making the convoluted plot into something meaningful, and for a while he even succeeds. But even Scorsese can't be spared the dreaded infodump after the twist that's obvious even from the trailer, spelling out in excruciating detail what's really going on behind all the impressionistic hallucinations and dream sequences.

What I wonder, then, is what does Scorsese want from Scorsese? Does he want to be the guy who's always making Important Films, so that he can continue casting big stars and getting huge budgets from major studios and always being invited to the Oscars? Or does he want to just follow his artistic muse in strange new directions, take on new genres and push the boundaries of his talent? Shutter Island seemingly finds him trying to do both, and while that tension makes the movie more interesting than it could have been, it also points to a potentially troubling future for the director's career.

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