Major filmmakers, minor films: Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski, Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer respectively.
“Disturbing” would be one word for the Scorsese, maybe the best word. Leonardo DiCaprio, the director’s torchbearer now in four films, halfway to De Niro’s number, starts out green around the gills in a greenish image, literally seasick on a ferry in Boston Harbor, as well as unshaven with an unexplained Band-Aid on his forehead, en route to an Alcatrazzy asylum for the criminally insane. Partnered for the first time with a fellow U.S. Marshal out of Seattle (Mark Ruffalo), the two of them dressed like Joe and Frank on Dragnet in conformance with the 1954 period, he ostensibly has been summoned to the inescapable craggy island to look into a locked-room mystery, the disappearance of a shoeless female inmate from her barred and guarded cell (“It’s as if she evaporated straight through the walls”), leaving behind, besides her shoes, a cryptic note hidden under a floor tile: “The Law of 4. Who is 67?”
Our investigator has at the same time, however, an ulterior motive of sniffing out the homicidal arsonist who, he confides in due course to his new partner, lit the fire that consumed the investigator’s wife. She (Michelle Williams, an actress girlish enough not to embarrass the eternally boyish DiCaprio) will appear to him in dreams to proffer tips on how to proceed. And, on top of these visions, he experiences flashy flashbacks to his service in WWII, the liberation of Dachau, the botched suicide of the camp commandant (a gruesome bit of head-shot makeup), and the Wounded Knee or My Lai-like massacre of the Nazi guards: What would a Scorsese hero be without guilt? What would a Scorsese movie be, for that matter, without a bloody head? The marshal’s stated aim is not to kill the arsonist (Elias Koteas, looking and acting like a younger De Niro, with an identity-blurring diagonal scar from brow to jaw) but rather a higher aim: to “blow the lid off” the secret Manchurian Candidate-style experiments on human guinea pigs purportedly funded by the House Un-American Activities Committee. In short, there is a lot going on, not even counting the approaching hurricane that cuts off the retreat route, the phone lines to the mainland, and for a time the electrical power, generating much more than a traditional Old Dark House — a whole Old Dark Penal Colony.
None of that, let me be clear, is particularly disturbing. Although all of it is likely to cause difficulty in swallowing, the locked-room part of it is actually appetizing if you have a taste for that kind of thing. What’s disturbing, by and by, is to see a director of Scorsese’s stature (not physical stature of course: picking up the Cecil B. De Mille Award at this year’s Golden Globes, he looked uncannily like Eugene Levy’s sawed-off Sid Dithers persona on the old SCTV comedy series) stooping to the unscrupulous bait-and-switch tactics that have become a vogue, if not a full-blown genre, ever since The Sixth Sense. All it needs to become a genre is a label: the gotcha genre, the pull-the-rug-out genre, the nothing-as-it-seems genre, the just-fooling genre. (Suggestions wanted.) It’s the sort of film, in consequence, that puts the critic in a tricky spot: if he’s not “spoiling” it, he’s colluding in it.
Saying even that much is, I suppose, spoiling it. But after all, it was already rotten to begin with. (The source, not to fix the blame on Scorsese, who took over the project from Wolfgang Petersen, is a Dennis Lehane novel, and even though I haven’t read it, I can imagine that at least the anagrams would have played fairer on the page.) The thickening Kafka-esque atmosphere, as befits a rat in a maze, alerts us that we are not going to get the type of locked-room solution we expect from a detective like Dr. Gideon Fell. But it is only our instilled deference to Martin Scorsese that would prevent us from anticipating, at the heart of the maze, the cheesy cheat which makes nonsense of everything we’ve come through. Or if not nonsense, at best irrelevance and at worst malpractice. There is a single word offered up as a rational explanation — or excuse — for every plot hole, every illogicality, every improbability, and I will do the film the favor of revealing that the word is not “dream,” although heaven knows that dreams and hallucinations do their share of patchwork in the film. I am bound to say on the other hand that the word (hint: it begins with p-s-y-c-h-o) doesn’t do its job. For every hole, every illogicality, every improbability it covers up, it uncovers another.
The upshot is a terrible waste of energy, and indeed a great deal of energy unmistakably went into it, primarily that trademark overdirection that serves always as a sort of methodology of self-hype: the flash pans, the vertiginous overhead shots, the pumpkin-head closeups, the portentous tracking shots, the ponderous slo-mo, the full range of eye-grabbing gimmicks by which Scorsese sells, sells, sells his stuff. We like to see a director taking command, but when the material is piffle it can have the effect of travesty — rather like an orchestral transcription of “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” in the style of Beethoven. Admittedly there is also, included in the amount of energy, a measure of good work: not just the law-of-averages good camerawork, but more reliably Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch, Max von Sydow. Wasted, too.
The Polanski, The Ghost Writer, comes off far more successfully, but not because its basic material gives it any advantage. A literary hack (Ewan McGregor) — “You name it, he ghosts it” — lands the plum assignment of, for a cool quarter of a million, polishing up the memoirs of a Tony Blair-ish former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan), stepping into the shoes of the previous silent collaborator who has unaccountably left his car on the ferry — evidently not far geographically from the Shutter Island ferry — and washed up on shore: accident? suicide? And is it only a coincidence that the ex-P.M. is just now coming under fire for alleged human-rights violations in the War on Terror? The adaptation of a Robert Harris political potboiler really doesn’t amount to much: standard portions of knee-jerk paranoia and mechanical plotting, to say nothing of the so-what final revelation that feels as concocted as it feels anticlimactic. (The predictable critical invocations of Hitchcock seem misguided from the get-go: the Master’s involvement in topical politics never went beyond rubber-stamp anti-Nazism in the Second World War and anti-Communism in the Cold War, and never went near any cynicism about our side.)
But Polanski, while dealing coincidentally with comparable buckets of rain around a comparable island fortress, proves himself a much better judge than Scorsese (which one’s the taller, though?), pacing himself prudently, walking a razor’s edge between anxiety and mirth, allowing the plot to unfold without rush, getting to know the cast of characters as palpable human beings — Olivia Williams a standout as the politician’s astringent wife — and keeping the bedrock of political piety pretty well buried. (I hope I can speak this way without signalling a willingness to sign some petition for Polanski’s release from house arrest in Switzerland, a totally separate issue.) In the later stages of his career, it is in genre pieces such as Frantic and The Ninth Gate, and now this, that the director’s mastery is most apparent, not where he subjugates it to greater causes: the classics (Oliver Twist), the Holocaust (The Pianist), political torture front and center (Death and the Maiden) rather than, as it is here, political torture in the wings. He seems in these circumstances to raise the level of his game by necessity, as though he can’t count on his teammates, can’t coast.
His personality, his imprint, is in any event ever-present in the scooped-out bowl-shaped space, so open and ominous and oppressive, and in the off-center observations of people and places. Yet he feels no Scorsesean urge to throw in the kitchen sink, or even the spatula, the can opener, the coffee pot, the meat cleaver. Knife and fork will suffice. And when at last he elects to turn up the heat on the stove top — the brilliant device of following a preprogrammed computer route in the dead man’s car to a destination unknown, the prickly interview that awaits at that destination (“A less equable man than I,” rasps a pedantic Tom Wilkinson, “might begin to find your questions impertinent”), and the black sedan with tinted windows lurking outside afterwards — the effect is delectable. A sustained tingle. It may not hold all the way to the end, but it comes close.