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.)

Going… going… gone!

First of all, my apologies for not updating my blog for the last two days. Things at the office and at home have been very busy, but from now on I should be able to update (practically) every day for the next two weeks. Promise!

And there’s enough to blog about, mainly the last film I watched at the cinema. Who’d have thought that Ben Affleck is so good at dealing with actors, especially after he didn’t exactly prove himself to be his generation’s De Niro? (Shades of Sophia Coppola, mayhaps…?) Gone Baby Gone is an accomplished first movie, with a brilliant cast and a wonderful set of moral grey areas to ponder for days after leaving the cinema.

Nah… still gone

For the record, I disliked Mystic River (which is also an adaptation of a novel by Dennis Lehane, just like Gone Baby Gone) intensely. I felt that Eastwood’s film at best paid lip service to the fact that many of its protagonist did pretty horrible things, but secretly it felt like the movie was condoning especially Sean Penn’s actions: after all, Tim Robbins’ character has been permanently broken by what happened to him when he was a kid, so a bullet to the head is in effect a mercy killing, even if done for the wrong reasons, right? Several people disagree with me on that reading, but I can’t shake it.

Gone Baby Gone is clearly by the same writer, and it shares many of the same concerns, but it’s more honest in addressing the moral dilemmas its characters are in. Many of the people involved try to do the right thing – but there is no right thing, so they try as hard as they can to go for the lesser of several evils. And the film doesn’t judge, which is quite amazing considering the story that it tells and the environment it’s set in. The Bostonian “white trash” isn’t looked down at or pitied as much as it is simply observed, just like the main character Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) doesn’t judge but simply tries to do what is right himself.

Casey Affleck is almost as brilliant as he was in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I was a bit irritated at the voiceover he had at the beginning of the film, because his voice is very characteristic and very specific. Its scratchy, somewhat adolescent quality (“You want fries with that?” – yup, that sort of voice) fit Robert Ford brilliantly, but I associated it with the character, not the actor. As soon as we actually saw Affleck, I was okay with it, though. It’s fascinating to watch his fundamentally decent character trying to figure out what the right thing is. When late in the film he kills a reprehensible character who has done an utterly evil thing, he doesn’t feel good or righteous, as would usually be the case in Hollywood films.

The rest of the cast is as fascinating. Much of the time you forget that you’re watching actors, as there’s something almost documentary about the presentation of the characters. Michelle Monaghan, whom I’d never noticed as much of an actress, makes her character into more of a Girl Friday/girlfriend type; Amy Madigan is as real as always; Morgan Freeman is remarkably short on Morgan Freeman-ness (Freemanity?), his usual, very pleasant style of (non-)acting; and Ed Harris seems to have swallowed Dennis Hopper whole, which is very disconcerting.

However, Gone Baby Gone may be a riveting film, but it’s not the most enjoyable film you could imagine. It’s less ponderous and heavy than Mystic River, but it leaves you with a very ambivalent ending, where those guilty before the law may be punished – but what is legal and what is right in this film diverges quite frighteningly. And chances are that the film will gnaw at your mind for a long time.