Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer: Scorsese and Polanski On Top of the World
Ladies and gentlemen, the new decade of cinema has officially opened with the arrival of two great films by two legendary filmmakers. Fate must have had a hand in deciding that Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer premiere, together, in the first few months (and in the same weekend, no less!) in 2010. A good decade of cinema is over. The new one has begun, and it had to begin not with just one smashing directorial comeback, but with two. The last time this exact same phenomenon occured, Gangs of New York and The Pianist were being released in late 2002. Oh, you may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one: Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski are on top of the world. Again.
Now listen carefully. Because both films have basically been reviewed to death (plot summaries and all) since their releases in February, I'm going to strain to talk about the elements in each film that traditional critics were not allowed the creativity and publication space to go in depth over--so this means major spoilers ahead. I strongly recommend that you attend both of these terrific films before reading any further. It would be a true shame if the rare, delicate magic of a Scorsese or Polanski release were ruined because of what I am about to make an attempt to go over.
Curiously, both films begin with the same opening sequence of a ship approaching the mainland. Scorsese opens Shutter Island with a ferry enshrouded in fog and mist, at daytime. Polanski opens The Ghost Writer with a ferry that is traveling at night, but through clear waters. We enter Scorsese's film in a state of bewilderment. Does the ferry know where it's going in all of that fog? We enter Polanski's film in a state of observation. The ferry certainly appears to know where it's going, but why is there a car onboard with no driver inside?
Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer are both conspiracy thrillers. Teddy Daniels will spend the eternity of Scorsese's film in constant fear that the establishment is out to get him. He is wrong. The Ghost will spend the eternity of Polanski's film suspecting the same type of threat. He is right. Shutter Island begins with fog overclouding the ferry because Teddy Daniels is a man going in circles. There is nothing of value for him to find- he is lost in the mist of his subconscious, chasing his own tail. The Ghost Writer, however, does not begin in fog because there is definitely something of value to be found. Once the Ghost thinks that maybe he's onto something, his findings do not disappoint.
The two films are both set in a sort of gray, chilly atmosphere. Whether it be the remote title location off the coast of Boston in Shutter Island, or the rainy Martha's Vineyard in The Ghost Writer, Scorsese and Polanski are electing to drape their films with an ominous romanticism. To call their methods “Hitchcockian” would be appropriate, I guess, although to me that term is so overused it's becoming a cop-out. And to call their methods “Kafkaesque” would just be downright laughable--not least becomes one of the characters in Shutter Island actually uses this term at a key moment. That'll teach those pretentious art students to watch their language.
When one looks at the long list of classic films that Scorsese screened to his actors in preparation for Shutter Island, it's baffling that Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor isn't on the list. Certainly Dennis Lehane must have had Shock Corridor in mind when he was writing up the novel that inspired Scorsese's film: it's another movie about a protagonist who attempts to get to the bottom of an insane asylum mystery, and, in the process, winds up becoming insane himself. Perhaps Scorsese didn't screen Shock Corridor to his cast because he didn't want to try to end up with a film that felt like a clone of Fuller's earlier approach. At any rate, if Shutter Island, thematically, feels closest to Shock Corridor, structurally and emotionally it actually feels closer to something like The Trial. If you think about it, Scorsese's entire output from the past decade has been an effort to replicate Orson Welles' artistic success: Gangs of New York is his Chimes at Midnight; The Aviator is his Mr. Arkadin; The Departed is his Touch of Evil; and No Direction Home was, arguably, his F for Fake. Now here is Shutter Island and, yes, it can be compared to The Trial.
Of all of Polanski's previous films, The Ghost Writer has shades of Knife in the Water (in its allusions to a man fallen overboard, possibly to have drowned), but structurally it shares most in common with The Ninth Gate. Like that film, it is told from the viewpoint of a literary scholar who goes hunting for a buried truth. Also like that film, there are select scenes that share a strange proximity with scenes from Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. You may remember a big fuss that was made over the sequence in The Ninth Gate (released the same year as Kubrick's film) in which Johnny Depp walks into a satanist ceremony much like the orgy ceremony that Tom Cruise crashes in Kubrick's film. In The Ghost Writer, the scene in which the Ghost heads deep into the woods to the mansion of Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson) reminds us of the scene in Kubrick's film in which Cruise visits the orgy mansion in the morning afterwards, desperate for more information. But The Ghost Writer is better than The Ninth Gate, not just because it is the more believable film, but because it concludes more satisfyingly. With The Ninth Gate, Polanski left us hanging on an anticlimax, fading to white before the revelation of something that was supposed to be Earth-shattering could even be revealed. At the end of The Ghost Writer, Polanski again fades to white, but this time he at least remembers the punchline. More on that later.
Aside from the parts of the two films that we could only have expected from the two filmmakers, Scorsese and Polanski also try to experiment with political allegories that we never would have dreamed they had any interest in. In Shutter Island, Teddy has flashbacks of liberating a Nazi death camp, and these scenes (which play as a nice contrast to the finale of Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds) are ironic considering that Scorsese was originally supposed to be the director of Schindler's List and- up until this point- has never portrayed the Holocaust onscreen. The Ghost Writer is very clearly a criticism of the administrations of Tony Blair, President Bush and other right-wing, pro-torture government officials (currently in office or not); and because Polanski has never been an inherently political filmmaker, this comes at a surprise. With that being said, the film isn't really a message movie, so perhaps the choice of content is not so bizarre after all.
The supporting casts in both films are inspired. Was it just a coincidence that Scorsese got Ted Levine and John Carroll Lynch to play the wardens of Shutter Island? If you recall, Levine played Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, and Lynch played the prime suspect in Zodiac. Why shouldn't Teddy be afraid of them? They both have histories as serial killers for crying out loud. Furthermore, when we get a glimpse of Elias Koteas as the sinister, cut-faced Andrew Laeddis, we've completely forgotten Koteas as that noble soldier from The Thin Red Line. And where did Polanski, meanwhile, get the bright idea to cast freaking Jim Belushi, everybody's favorite ABC sitcom superstar, as the Ghost's employer?
More strange casting decisions. There is the matter of child stars suddenly out of their element: Jackie Earle Haley, as the vile, abused inmate George Noyce, is a long way away from that bicycling kid we remember from Breaking Away; ditto for Timothy Hutton, who, as the straight-faced Sidney Kroll, is no longer the troubled, suicidal youth from Ordinary People. Most refreshingly, Scorsese and Polanski each include the casting of a wise-man who's seen it all. Isn't it fitting that the Ghost receives a vital bit of information from Eli Wallach--famous worldwide as the Ugly? Or that Teddy almost gets injected by Max Von Sydow--the Exorcist himself? If we remember Wallach's amusing cameo in Eastwood's Mystic River (also based on a Dennis Lehane novel) or Von Sydow's swansong performance in Spielberg's Minority Report, it's wonderful to see that both actors are still hanging in there, and doing an amazing job yet again.
I don't share the disgust that some of Scorsese's fans have had regarding his continuous collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio. I would be happy to see them work on another film together, if they see fit. I thought Scorsese brought out a raw viscerality in DiCaprio, in Gangs of New York and The Departed, that he hadn't shown before. His performance in The Aviator (my favorite of Scorsese's films from the last decade) was nothing short of spellbinding. It's certainly tempting to say that Shutter Island contains the best work he's done in all of Scorsese's films, but I won't go there. Let me just hint that by the time the film reaches the point where Teddy is wallowing through a pond, howling up to the sky with his three dead children in his arms, it is the very definition of a great performance reaching its climax. This scene is bookended by devastating scenes in which Ben Kingsley and Mark Ruffalo try to convince Teddy--and the audience as well--that everything we have just seen is a lie.
To me, Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan, in The Ghost Writer, have each given the finest performances of their respective careers. I think what I admired most about McGregor in the film is that... well, I kept forgetting he was Ewan McGregor. He's given strong performances before, in films like Big Fish, Black Hawk Down and especially Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, but in those films he also carried the weight of Hollywood's celebrity pomposity. In this film, he is more subtle, and disappears into his character. The same can be said even more for Pierce Brosnan. Any actor who plays James Bond eventually needs to find a redeeming role that can break the 007 curse; if John Huston and The Man Who Would Be King (or maybe John Boorman, with Zardoz) provided that opportunity for Sean Connery, then Polanski, here, has provided that opportunity for Brosnan. There is a scene in The Ghost Writer in which the Ghost relinquishes small-talk and confronts Brosnan's character, the Blair-like Adam Lang, with the truth. Then Lang explodes right back at him, telling him to cut that bleeding-heart liberal hogwash. That's the moment when we realize that 007 is no more, and that the real Pierce Brosnan is here to stay.
Make no mistake that the women in both films get similarly rich opportunities. The women of Shutter Island beautifully resurrect stereotypes of film noir: Emily Mortimer is the damsel in despair; Patricia Clarkson is the shadowy figure who serves as a relay for hot information in Teddy's futile quest; and Michelle Williams' performance as Teddy's dead wife is unspeakably chilling because, even from the grave, she never ceases to exist as a terrible influence on Teddy's course of action. By comparison, the women of The Ghost Writer are, shall we say, more realistic. Unlike her forgettable roles in The Sixth Sense and Rushmore, Olivia Williams' portrayal of Adam Lang's angry wife is scene-stealing; this is her strongest role since George Hickenlooper's The Man From Elysian Fields (2002), and we have every reason to believe it when she becomes the most threatening presence in the way of the Ghost's life. Kim Cattrall is sexy and calculating as Lang's aide; I'm kind of thrown for a loop by the criticisms of Cattrall's English accent in the film, considering that Cattrall herself is English by nature (if you recall, she also had an English accent in the 1990's- when De Palma cast her as McCoy's wife in The Bonfire of the Vanities).
Something else to note on this subject is that Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer are stark critiques of the misogyny that plagues the male-dominated environments in both films. Teddy Daniels, for example, is at first merely willing to admit that he “killed” his wife; it is only after some pondering that he is willing to confess that his crime was an act of murder, very much akin to his unit's crime of murdering Nazi prisoners of war at the death camp. And Adam Lang and the Ghost are aware that, since they are living in the time of John Edwards, things like adultery are easy to get away with in the political world. But the women do not forget about it.
The soundtracks of both films are something to be desired. Polanski's composer for The Ghost Writer is Alexandre Desplat, whose music alternates from thrilling to quirky- much like his previous work on the soundtrack for Fantastic Mr. Fox. Scorsese's music supervisor for Shutter Island is, oddly enough, Robbie Robertson. The two have been friends ever since they made The Last Waltz in 1978 together, when Robertson declared that sixteen years with The Band was long enough. Now here he is adapting eerie cello music for the opening and closing of Shutter Island, and it's enough to put a smile on one's face.
One thing I was not expecting, however, was Scorsese's decision to play the song “This Bitter Earth” during the end credits of the film. The song has been used in movies before, most prominently by Charles Burnett on the soundtrack for Killer of Sheep--to help visualize the harsh reality of poor black suburbia. I am not sure why Scorsese uses the song in the end credits for Shutter Island, although the decision to align Dinah Washington's vocal lyrics with a new violin score inserted by Robertson may or may not have something to do with what the film is all about. Teddy has awoken from his living nightmare, only to seemingly fall into it again. What a bitter Earth, Scorsese appears to be suggesting, for allowing this to happen to such a courageous federal marshal.
That Scorsese and Polanski's accomplishments are being hissed at in certain places by cynics who do not appreciate their unconventional challenges to the art form are, alas, a given. I suppose A.O. Scott thought he was doing the rest of the critical community a favor, in his Shutter Island review, when he told his peers that it was okay to trash Scorsese's latest. And I bet Kyle Smith was feeling very proud of himself when he allowed his partisan politics to get the better of him in his Ghost Writer review--which is full of cheap shots at Polanski's personal life, and not at all valid as an actual critique of the film itself.
I wish more people could understand how much of Scorsese and Polanski themselves are in each of these two films. Polanski, now a family man in his late 70's, is no doubt beginning to appreciate the values of life--it is brave of him, then, to end The Ghost Writer on a note of such poetic misfortune, as the Ghost (he is unnamed for the entirety of the picture) is struck by a car off-camera, killed just when he has finally uncovered the secrets behind the awful truth. Scorsese, meanwhile, is in his late 60's, still getting to make epic, glorious films while affording to still take life for granted a little; he is equally brave, however, to allow Teddy Daniels to walk into the hands of his enemies and give up, after he realizes that there is no awful truth for him to discover. The point is, whether their films end with papers flying in the wind or with a stoic lighthouse that is home to the worst punishment imaginable, Scorsese and Polanski have retaken the hill. They are, once again, great kings of cinema. Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer represent them at the pinnacles of their craft. I hope I am not alone when I say- right here and right now- that I am screaming for more.