It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world

It’s a detail, a cinematic in-joke invisible to all but film afficionados, but it adds to the ominous atmosphere on Shutter Island: the two head wardens of the mental hospital are played by Ted Levine and John Carroll Lynch – Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb from Silence of the Lambs and Arthur Leigh Allen, the main suspect from David Fincher’s Zodiac. With these two in charge of security at Ashecliff Hospital, you wonder: are the inmates in charge of the asylum, or are the patients even more insane? Even the benevolent doctor, played by Ben Kingsley at his most unctuous, serves to make us more paranoid rather than comforted.

The main attraction in this Scorsesean Gothic horror, though, is Shutter Island itself: the location immediately joins an exclusive list together with Bates Motel, the Overlook Hotel and the abbey in The Name of the Rose, as one of those places that feed the imagination. Anything might be hiding in that old lighthouse, and the carpets of Dr. Cawley’s residence exude a sense of foreboding. The place breathes a diseased past: you get an almost tactile sense that things have happened here, things that shouldn’t be.

Things that, in fact, didn’t happen. The true horror house, as so often, is the human mind, protecting itself as it knows best: by inventing alternative histories that become more real, more believab le, and certainly more necessary than what has really happened.

Scorsese and Lehane’s psychological horror yarn isn’t original, and those who have seen or read similar stories will not be overly surprised by the main twist ten minutes before the end. But it’s been a while since the twist, its lead-up and denouement havve been told with such sensuality. The film is rarely subtle, but damn, if you don’t feel the clammy fog of Shutter Island stick to your skin as you leave the theatre.

Having said that, though, I have one quibble with the film. For the most part it plays fair with what is and what isn’t real. It doesn’t fool the audience in cheap ways and is usually pretty clear with respect to what’s in the protagonist’s mind. Hallucinations aren’t played for a cheap “Huhwha?” effect. There is one big exception to this, though, a scene which logically must be a hallucination, yet it plays more realistically than most other scenes in the film. On one level it helps that it features the always wonderful Patricia Clarkson, who invests the scene with a fevered intensity and conviction; on the other hand, it’s exactly the fact that she’s so believable in her part, her presence to solid, and the moment not a brief flash of unreality, that it takes on a solidity it shouldn’t have – logically, it must be a hallucination, yet it doesn’t have the markers of unreality that the film has established previously. And that’s why the scene keeps niggling at me. It stands out, yet I can’t help feeling that it doesn’t play fair. It’s a cheat – an eminently well-executed cheat, but a cheat nevertheless. And yet, and yet… Perhaps I need to see the film again to figure it out. Just when I thought I was out, Shutter Island pulls me back in. (Thank you, Sil.)

… do as the Belgians do

After I killed him, I dropped the gun in the Thames, washed the residue off me hands in the bathroom of a Burger King, and walked home to await instructions. Shortly thereafter the instructions came through – “Get the fuck out of London, you dumb fucks. Get to Bruges.” I didn’t even know where Bruges fucking was.


It’s in Belgium.

Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges is an effective, strangely affecting black comedy. It’s by no means a great movie, but what it does it does tremendously well. Many of the reviews compare it to Tarantino’s films and to the modern Brit gangster flicks such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but both of these comparisons miss the persuasive streak of sadness that runs through the film.

Clearly there are elements of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, but these similarities only go skin deep. (Two humanised hitmen spouting funny, quotable lines.) A more apt comparison would be Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, both in its absurdity and in the way its characters are acutely aware of their guilt yet unable to verbalise their feelings. Both Pinter’s early play and McDonagh’s film work as comedy, yet it wouldn’t be fair to either to dismiss them as just that.

A lot of the sadness that permeates (yes, I’m using that pretentious word – deal with it) the film, clearly helped by the medieval morbidity of Bruges and Carter Burwell’s simple yet effective score, comes from Brendan Gleeson. However, while Gleeson’s performance is spot on, it isn’t that different from many of his earlier dubious yet loveable characters (his best to date, as far as I can tell at least, would probably be Martin Cahill in John Boorman’s The General). For me, the true standout performance, surprisingly, was Colin Farrell, both funnier and more touching than I’ve ever seen him. (Disconcertingly, Farrell’s second best performance was in a Joel Schumacher film, Tigerland. How’s that for scary?)

In Bruges falters towards the end, with a finale that ramps up the absurdity at the price of its earlier moodiness, but the film remains a small gem composed of moments of unexpected beauty. And how often do you get the chance to see Ralph Fiennes play the Ben Kingsley part from Sexy Beast?

Coming up next (hopefully sooner than this update): Is it possible that the Goofy Beast was slightly disappointed with a Joss Whedon-penned comic? (No, not Buffy.)