The Cabinet of Dr. Scorsese: Shutter Island, The Limits of Control, Edge of Darkness
By Fernando F. Croce

Nothing is quite as depressing these days as watching Martin Scorsese execute an elaborate tracking shot and seeing nothing more than wheels clicking, all exacting technique and no conviction. His Gothic period mystery Shutter Island proposes cinema as projections of tormented visions -- the movie house as madhouse. The titular asylum for the criminally insane, first glimpsed through the Boston Harbor fog like a remembrance of King Kong, is described as a fusion of "moral order and clinical care"; unfortunately, the humorless fortissimo approach here makes it less emotionally resonant or artistically coherent than Mel Brooks’ "Institute for the Very, Very Nervous" in High Anxiety. The year is 1954, the protagonist is a federal agent (Leonardo DiCaprio) whose skull is just about splitting open from private and collective traumas. His wife’s ghost (Michelle Williams) murmurs in his ear, the liberation of Dachau and the H-bomb keep churning inside of him, hell, even the HUAC gets in on the party. "Seen any waking nightmares lately, marshal?" Ben Kingsley is posed next to statues of fauns and Max von Sydow wraps himself in Mahler as the head analysts, the lunatics include Emily Mortimer as Medea and Elias Koteas as a cartoon of Robert De Niro. Only the uniform separates the staff from the patients, a joke Scorsese misses as he strains to pump this amalgam of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Shock Corridor and The Shining with the Significance expected from the Greatest American Filmmaker. He fills the screen with storms, fire, thunder, rats and icy-blue corpses, but behind the feverish mood there’s only fumbled surrealism and Psychiatry 101. ("You wanna uncover the truth? You gotta let it go," the hero is told. Who knew Dr. Phil held the cure for the calamities of the twentieth century?) By the time Marty Night Shyamalan gets to the Big Twist at the end, it’s obvious that the director is the inmate scratching the walls of his bricked cell. I'm hoping he can break out soon, hopefully before his next project.


While Shutter Island aims to dilate Val Lewton horrors (think of Bedlam and Isle of the Dead smooshed together and drowned in kerosene), The Limits of Control seeks to distill Jean-Pierre Melville’s Zen gangland sagas. A distillation of a distillation can be exasperating, and, indeed, Jim Jarmusch’s album of existential-hitman calisthenics precipitated a few of last year’s most vituperative critical responses. Seeing it on DVD recently, however, I found myself nodding in agreement with some of the detractors’ points -- willful abstruseness, assumptions about globalized communication and art, "pretentiousness" -- while still being caught up in Jarmusch’s mesmeric stylistic flow. The unnamed wanderer (Isaach De Bankolé) is an expressionless Mr. Cool whose arcane mission involves ambling around Madrid, turning down Paz de la Huerta in a see-through raincoat, and playing audience to a roll call of indie hepcats. Tilda Swinton materializes with silver tresses under a cowboy hat and John Hurt babbles about bohemians, Alex Descas, Youki Kudoh and Gael Garcia Bernal also turn up, each gets a monologue about film, science, painting, music. "Everything is subjective. Whatever that means." The final stop is a Seville fortress lorded over by "The American" (Bill Murray), whose appearance as a baronial corporate honcho (or is it a studio producer?) posits the movie as an auteur’s self-mythologizing fairy-tale, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia with expressos in place of blood. With its encoded meanings, ritualistic repetitions and rehearsals, it’s clearly about artistic awareness and the filmmaking process. Gaseous as it often is, Control offers an astonishingly sensuous experience. Christopher Doyle’s uncanny lighting, the layered sound design (Schubert, fuzzy guitars, whirring helicopters), the sense of oneiric drift (airplanes, escalators, cars, trains and trucks play key roles), the surprising editing... I kept thinking of William Blake’s "doors of perception," as tangible here as in Dead Man, Jarmusch’s last great film.


Mel Gibson’s first starring role in eight years, Edge of Darkness is very aware of having gotten Mr. Crucifixion back in front of the camera: "You had better decide whether you’re hanging on the cross or banging in the nails," Gibson growls at a bad guy. (Later on, another joke: "Do you speak Latin?") That’s about all the wit in this predictable, sturdy vigilante thriller, which wastes no time getting its dour star in purgative-vendetta mode -- Gibson is a Boston police detective, his daughter (Bojana Novakovic) is introduced only to be shotgunned in front of him, her blood spattered on his face is already war paint. His personal investigation unearths acres of government-corporate menace, including radiation-dusted whistleblowers, Danny Huston oozing from atop his glassy fortress, and even a bit of Kiss Me Deadly stashed inside a milk bottle. Ray Winstone is the aboundingly philosophical underworld cleaner, who uses bourbon to wash down pills and lines like "There’s something about the darkness, but I like it" and "We’re all terminal, aren’t we? Even middle management." The material is compressed from the 1985 British miniseries, though Martin Campbell’s direction keeps the uneasy mix of Death Wish 2 and Michael Clayton taut for a good deal of the running time. The hushed dread of characters whispering to themselves, always afraid of being watched or run over or contaminated with nuclear fallout, might seem like the opposite of the slam-bang kineticism Campbell brought to his superb Casino Royale remake, yet the emphasis on men ultimately drained by the very vengeance that marks them as "action heroes" suggests a trenchant thematic motif emerging from this expert craftsman. And Gibson himself, whose visage by now conjures up the surreal image of sagging granite, parades a weathered single-mindedness that would be risible if it weren't so authentic.


Adolescence is hell, and so are most movies about it. Youth in Revolt merely reinforces the unwritten law that every artsy Sundance grad has to at one point direct a teen/stoner/gross-out comedy. It’s Miguel Arteta’s turn at bat in this smug, dead-air-riddled adaptation of C.D. Payne’s novel, with Michael Cera as, surprise!, a spindly juvenile with retro tastes and a raging libido. To woo his dream girl (Portia Doubleday), the shy dweeb/budding psycho imagines a bold, Gallic doppelganger who, played by Cera with lip fuzz and cig, suggests Tyler Durden from Fight Club reborn as a lemur. I’ve had about enough of Cera trying to wring laughs from sotto-sardonic pronunciations of things like "slatternly wench" and "sweet angel of the lavatory," though I still smiled when, asked whether Ozu or Mizoguchi directed Tokyo Story, he gazes in the distance and hurls a mock-thoughtful "Who can say?" Shift from Northern California to Essex, England, and you find the miserabilist feminine version of the tale in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. The sullen protagonist (Katie Jarvis) is a pissed-off 15-year-old whose mimicking of hip-hop grinding functions as an illusory escape from an existence of grim housing projects, slipshod families, and junkyards. Phony vérité to complement the phony formalism of Arnold’s Red Road, it goes for jittery-camera grit but comes off like Mike Leigh minus the humor and human insight. Some noteworthy acting from the feral Jarvis, Kierston Wareing as the hard-partying Mum, and above all Michael Fassbender, who, as the older dude in the girl's hormonal tangle, continues to amaze with his charisma, presence, and subtlety. In the end, however, it’s a retread of An Education, another case of a female filmmaker willing to explore the erotic yearning and tensions in her young heroine’s life but still settling for neat, she’s-gonna-make-it-after-all climaxes.

Reviewed February 28, 2010.

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