MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Shutter Island, The Ghost Writer and Ajami

Shutter Island (Four Stars)
U.S.; Martin Scorsese, 2010

Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese’s new film, is a horror movie for aficionados, who like to be scared and not have to check their brains in the lobby. It‘s for moviegoers who’ve had their fill of the current psycho-splatter shriek shows or never wanted to bother with them in the first place. It’s a terrific movie, and it’s also a refreshing furlough from the non-stop massacres or blood-drenched, character-thin remakes that make up today‘s scary-movie norm. Scorsese hasn’t made a real horror movie since his exciting but flawed 1991 Cape Fear remake. But he makes a doozy of a thriller here.

From its first sights and sounds — the crashing Krzysztof Penderecki chords that cue the movie’s classical/modernist borrowed soundtrack, and the first ominous sights of the island itself, looming out of the gray day as a ferry carrying Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo slowly approaches it — this movie announces itself as something different, more classic, even Kubrickian. (Major reference here: The Shining).

The source is a clever, scary Dennis Lehane novel (adapted here by Laeta Kalogridis, screenwriter of Pathfinder and an executive producer on Avatar): a very good pop book with memorable characters, crisp dialogue and a shocking climax. To me, the movie made from it seemed a howling success, one that works on every level it reaches for, and that serves Lehane‘s original novel as well as Clint Eastwood‘s taut, grim movie adaptation served Lehane‘s Mystic River. It also gives Scorsese a great showcase for a lot of the things he does best.

It’s a terrific genre horror film and a terrific Scorsese picture as well: a beautifully crafted show with good literary credentials, a brilliant cast, a hip musical score selected by Robbie Robertson (including Gustav Mahler, Penderecki and Kay Starr) and really stunning production values. Best of all, the movie’s appeal is intellectual as well as visceral. While not really skimping on blood and guts, Shutter Island doesn’t try to bombard you with gore-overkill, so much as play with your head, upset your conception of reality. It’s Hitchcockian in the best sense: an old-fashioned movie done with lots of new-fangled technology and immaculate technique, a smart, quality film that steeps us in mood and suspense and tries to keep us guessing and apprehensive, rather than simply jolt us with escalating massacres.

The environment of Shutter Island frays nerves from the start. Once off that ferry and ashore, we arrive at a madhouse in 1954 at the height of the Cold War. Set on a creepy, forbidding island in Boston Harbor — an isolated realm of rocky cliffs, crashing waves, an eerie lighthouse and some sinister old Civil War-era military forts that now house the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane — the movie now follows its protagonists, two cynical-seeming federal marshals with tough mugs, cigarettes, fedoras, and streetwise Massachusetts accents: Leonardo DiCaprio as hard-drinking, sullen Bostonian Teddy Daniels and Mark Ruffalo as steady, dependable Chuck Aule (a standup guy who always calls Teddy “Boss“). After calmly noting that Teddy has a drinking problem and something haunting his past, and that Chuck may be hiding something, the movie picks up their sojourn in this place made for the extreme criminals no other mental institution or jail wants to take — and their investigation into the disappearance of an Ashecliffe patient named Rachel Solando, a murderer who vanished from her cell.

Something is more deeply wrong here than anyone lets on at first — though what could be much worse than being trapped on an island full of dangerously insane criminals, while a killer is loose and a hurricane approaches? We tend to feel as cynical about Ashecliffe as the marshals do, even when they’re “reassured” by the smiling, a-bit-too-friendly Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley, at the top of his game), and Cawley’s more dour and secretive compatriot Dr. Naehring (played by Ingmar Bergman’s great leading actor, Max von Sydow). Both Cawley and Naehring, or at least Cawley, seem intelligent, helpful and concerned. And so, in a gruffer-no-nonsense way, does the pair’s prison contact/guide, Deputy Warden McPherson (John Carroll Lynch).

But Teddy seems hipper to all the dark undercurrents, as he and Chuck walk through yards where the docile-looking patients rake the lawns and give them knowing grins, as they interview prisoners who talk chattily about their murders, and as they stroll though prison blocks that look like Alcatraz redressed for The Snake Pit and Silence of the Lambs. The currents are dark indeed: Ashecliffe is backed by the House Un-American Activities Committee at the height of the McCarthy era, and Dr. Naehring is not Swedish but German, and maybe a former Nazi. (Teddy and the movie carry scarring flashback memories of the Holocaust; he was one of the WW2 American Army soldiers who entered Dachau and saw its human wreckage and heaps of corpses.)

Something else to jar our nerves: Rachel, who is ultimately played (or is she?) by two different actresses, Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson, has left clues that suggest the “escape” was faked, and that Cawley is lying to them. And Teddy, we also learn, has an ulterior motive for accepting this assignment. He’s looking for the firebug/killer Andrew Laeddis (played by Elias Koteas), who disappeared into Ashecliffe somehow, and who also set the fire that killed Teddy‘s wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), a beautiful blond vision who keeps appearing to him in nightmares.

Complicated enough? Shutter Island has so much plot and character, all so lucidly revealed by Scorsese and company, that it doesn’t need a freshly slaughtered corpse every ten minutes or so, to hold our interest.

So, what follows is a riveting story that keeps playing with different levels of reality and a wide array of socio-political tensions, but that also, like Shock Corridor, may be pulling us into a maelstrom of madness. The key to the movie’s troubling effect lies in both the stunning production (Scorsese uses his usual production designer, Fellini’s late-career mainstay Dante Ferretti, and Ferretti creates something as striking and edgy as his backdrops for Interview with a Vampire and Scorsese‘s Bringing Out the Dead), and in DiCaprio‘s superb central performance as Teddy Daniels, whose wire-trigger temper and rebellious disposition can be read as either paranoia, or as the tough cop‘s well-founded suspicions of everybody. The supporting cast, which also includes Jackie Earle Haley (as a creepy prisoner/informant), and Silence of the Lamb’s serial killer Ted Levine (as an even creepier warden), could hardly be better.

After Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed and this movie, DiCaprio now definitely seems to occupy, for Scorsese, the most-favored-actor niche Robert De Niro used to have. And he seems to get stronger and more confident with each new challenge Scorsese tosses him. In the beginning of his career, DiCaprio seemed more vulnerable, more “outside.” We tend to allow his now-archetypal romantic image in Titanic to obliterate everything else, and forget how good he also was as the mentally challenged protagonist of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (where he was more sensitive than brother Johnny Depp), or the fact that he played (very well) both homosexual poet/outlaw Artur Rimbaud in Total Eclipse and writer/Catholic school cager/heroin addict Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries.

Here, as much as in The Aviator, DiCaprio, despite the uniform excellence of the supporting cast, has to carry the movie — which takes us deep inside Teddy’s head, as the nightmares around him deepen, and as the world around him starts to fall apart and expose its darkest side. DiCaprio gets both sides of the character: the outer braggadocio, the inner torment. And he also gets the haunted confusion that underlies Teddy’s surface swagger.

Every other actor in the movie, including the magnificent Ben Kingsley, the always-brilliant Patricia Clarkson and the peerless Von Sydow, seems to be rising to the occasion here when they act with DiCaprio. They play with extra juice and voltage to his wary, watchful Teddy, as if dueling with both the character and the actor. That sense of extra effort fits the movie’s structure as a classically constructed detective story (as much that as a genre horror movie), with a puzzle-plot where the sleuth is trying to penetrate everyone‘s masks and find a killer. But it also fits Shutter Island’s profile as a top actors’ gallery/showcase, one where everyone, from the leading man on down, is really cooking.

Inevitably maybe, I kept wishing, especially after watching Shutter Island, that Scorsese, instead of seeming to let De Niro pass the torch to DiCaprio, would actually some day put them in a movie together, maybe with another part for Joe Pesci. (De Niro and DiCaprio, after all, struck pretty fair sparks together in This Boy‘s Life.) In an alternative world, that might have been the case with Gangs of New York, which has a De Niro-style role as well as a DiCaprio part: the Irish-American gang boss Bill the Butcher played so superbly by Daniel Day-Lewis. That was a great juicy role (the best one in the movie) that Day-Lewis seized by the throat and wrung dry, but that De Niro might have played just as effectively, holding it in, making it simmer, with a patented Bobby D. explosion periodically tearing it open.

And of course, De Niro (or Pesci) could also have played Jack Nicholson’s part as the profane Boston gang lord Frank Costello in The Departed, though one hates to think of depriving Jack — who never got to play on the Mean Streets with the guys, in his own greatest decade, the ’70s — of all the evil Jack-joy he squeezed out of that performance. There’s even an echo of De Niro in Shutter Island: that one scathing, blood-chilling scene Teddy has with his nemesis, killer Laeddis, played by Koteas, an actor who has always looked (and acted) a bit like Bobby D.

Anyway, since I have nothing to lose, and since Scorsese does seem, like his idols Ford and Cassavetes, to like to use the same actors, I’d nudge him to cook up something for both his new blood, DiCaprio, and his old lion, De Niro. At least, a De Niro/DiCaprio actor’s duel on screen could ignite some primo four-letter improvising. At best, it could blow the house down.

Nothing much seems improvised in Shutter Island, a movie that sometimes suggests an intricate performance slightly coming apart at the seams. But that’s part of what makes it work so well. Like a good Hitchcock, this movie unsettles you by making chaos and bloody havoc look planned, a part of the universal (if not Universal) order. As Nicholson has said, the trick of acting is to make every sentence sound like the first time. But sometimes, as here, there’s a good reason for making a speech seem slightly rehearsed.

I don’t think “Shutter Island” is a wholly natural Scorsese picture any more than his over-the-top hit Cape Fear was. (That was more a lucrative gift from Spielberg.) And, in fact, Shutter Island often suggests a director who always has something in reserve, who isn’t giving quite his all.

But then again, he doesn’t have to. Shutter Island is material where Scorsese can often let the script, the genre, the production and the actors take over — and, in fact, where they should take over, where he himself should often disappear into the story. The personal part of the movie, for the Scorsese who once made Taxi Driver, may be the whole drugs-nightmare-identity aspect. But it’s sometimes better to play a bit down to your material, to make it seem both spontaneous and completely under control, than to keep reaching up for it.

Just because you’re not personally obsessed doesn’t mean you’re not creatively engaged. A common rap against Scorsese by his professional detractors (knee-jerk Marty-bashers who seem to want to even the score and take him down a peg, topple him from all this “greatest living American filmmaker” bullshit) is that he’s too movie obsessed, that he’s in love with trash, that he’s not personal enough, or engaged enough in themes that might make the world a better place to live in, or more fun, instead of a cinephile sewer full of profanity-spewing street rats, quoting scenes from Shadows or Underworld, U.S.A. or Out of the Past.

Scorsese critics like this, infuriated for some reason at his prestige with other critics, often come across like concerned but slightly weary guidance counselors, trying to wean poor, misguided Marty away from movie allusions and foul language and Andrew Sarris‘s pantheon, the way you’d cold turkey a junkie away from smack. But I don’t care if he quotes Michael Powell or Fellini or Nick Ray a hundred times, as long as he keeps using the studio system to make great movies on a big scale. Would that Francis Coppola and Arthur Penn and others of like talent were doing the same.

I can even sculpt a good argument against the people who think Shudder Island is just junk well done, beginning by invoking the now-classic Hollywood movies, including almost all great film noir, that have been made from novels once dismissed (by some) as trash, by writers, once dismissed (by some) as hacks, like Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, David Goodis, Raymond Chandler, Stephen King, Horace McCoy, Chester Himes, Elmore Leonard, Cornell Woolrich, Philip K. Dick and Richard Stark (Donald Westlake). It’s precisely the nightmare, unfettered quality of the best pulpy popular crime fiction by authors like most of the ones above, that often helps their books and stories become such gripping movies — and that‘s the tradition at least partly lying behind Dennis Lehane‘s book.

So, what happens to Teddy on Shutter Island, could be an analogue to what happened to America in 1954, burying its nightmares under a fedora, a cigarette and a wisecrack, only to have them come crashing back down like hard rain over the madhouse. Compared to most other current horror-suspense movies, some of which get good reviews just because they make fun of themselves, Shutter Island does have some serious themes, deeper psychology, richer texture and background, more complex characters. It isn’t the movie-buff dive into the junkyard some would suggest.

And it certainly has incredible acting, even if the actors are playing somewhat archetypal parts. (For a reason.) Those actors are not slumming. They’re alive. And Shutter Island would not improve if those themes were more obvious, if it became a more stinging One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-style social parable and trauma-drama, if the violence and craziness were scoured out of it, or, to take the opposite approach, if all of the movie’s Massachusetts suddenly turned into a Hospital for the Criminally Insane (something which, judging from the last election, may actually have happened).

No, let’s celebrate Scorsese, his cast and his crew and their movie-making, because they’re so damned good, and because they love movies and want us to love them too, even if we’re all on the bad side of our would-be guidance counselors. As Francois Truffaut once said, fear is a noble emotion — which makes Shutter Island, at least from some angles, a noble endeavor.

Hey, surprise! I got though this entire fucking review without needing a single SPOILER ALERT. (I hope.) And believe me, it wasn’t easy. This movie seethes with the neurasthenic unease and suspense of a Vertigo, a Spellbound, a Psycho, a Memento. But it has a surprise or two up its sleeve too. I’d recommend not trying to read too many more reviews, or having too many conversations with people who’ve already watched Shutter Island, before you see it yourself. And see it you should — if you have any taste for classy horror, great movie acting and great moviemaking, for older-style Boston tough guys, and for Scorsese movies.


The Ghost Writer (Three Stars)
U.S.-U.K.; Roman Polanski, 2009

Shutter Island is a movie Roman Polanski probably should have made, just as, for different reasons, Schindler‘s List was. (He got a second great chance at “Schindler’s” subject matter, and triumphed with it, in The Pianist.) But Island is even more his kind of movie than Scorsese’s: a descent into subjective terror that fits Polanski’s eye-level nightmare style perfectly, a movie that might even be described as a mix of the elements of his masterpieces Repulsion (the crazy killer), Cul-de-Sac (the island) and Chinatown (the detective and the scandal).

The Ghost Writer is the movie Polanski did make: an adaptation of Robert Harris’ prize-winning thriller The Ghost about an opportunistic (and nameless) young writer (Ewan McGregor) brought to an isolated retreat on Martha’s Vineyard, and hired to ghost-write the autobiography of a retired Tony Blair-like British Prime Minister named Adam Lang (played with 007-like machismo and insouciance by Pierce Brosnan), while trying to fathom what’s up with Lang’s wife (Olivia Williams), his assistant (Kim Cattrall), a mysterious political rival named Emmett (Tom Wilkinson) and a gabby old man (Eli Wallach).

Based on the movie, The Ghost doesn’t seem like a very good novel. The film didn’t seize my imagination or chill my blood, even though I was primed for it, and even though Polanski directs it beautifully, visualizing each scene with an edgy, icy-gray or chilly-blue bleak atmosphere and a sense of underlying evil and panic.

I once transcribed a Polanski interview, in which I thought he was saying to me that the two most important things in movies were “characters and utmost fear,“ when what he was really saying, was “characters and atmosphere.“ He gets at least two of those three here: atmosphere and utmost fear. But though the actors are good, none of the characters (not even the usually movie-stealing Wilkinson’s) is very memorable. And it’s hard to empathize with a character in a thriller, like McGregor’s Ghost, who shows so little fear, with so much danger and enigma around.

The Ghost may be a good writer, but he doesn’t seem to have read much John Grisham or watched Three Days of the Condor. The fact that Lang has been linked to a CIA scandal doesn’t seem to phase him. Neither does the coincidence of his predecessor being drowned in the first scene, nor any of the mysterious things that happen along the way. Maybe the fact that the writer remains nameless has made him think himself invulnerable, already a ghost of himself.

Is his diminished sense of danger a comment on his profession? Ghost writers are more plentiful than most people realize; one of my best friends ghosted a best-selling book by one of the America’s most celebrated radio-TV talk show hosts. And it makes me a little angry. Why should all these semi-literate politicians, rich yokels and famous TV and radio gab show hosts, commentators and stars get credit for being “New York Times Bestselling Authors,“ when they really can’t write worth a damn and they’ve instead hired instead some poor nameless pro like McGregor to listen to their tape recordings and do what they can‘t?

Should we give college degrees to students who hire other people to take their tests? Should we certify all forged signatures as genuine? Should we declare that all Elvis impersonators are now officially, really Elvis? Then why doesn’t the New York Times put an asterisk on the names of all the phony writers on its bestseller lists? Why doesn’t somebody out all of them, beginning with my buddy‘s employer? (Well, because I’d lose a friend.)

Anyway, Polanski may be a captured fugitive, but he’s no fake, even if The Ghost Writer sometimes feels a little as if it were ghost-written. It’s been decades since Pauline Kael suggested that Polanski might become the new Hitchcock (at least before Truffaut did), yet this is his first thriller since Frantic in 1988. He’s capable of better in the genre; he’s capable of masterpieces. I hope he does them. Soon.


Ajami (Three and a Half Stars)
Israel; Scandar Copti/Yaron Shani (2009)

Israel’s nominee for the foreign language film Oscar is no fake either. It‘s a real thriller with convincing characters and a real background: the mixed Jewish, Arab-Muslim and Arab-Christian communities of Ajami, a neighborhood of Jaffa, near Tel Aviv. The story is told out of sequence, continually doubling back, as if we were detectives piecing together the facts behind several deaths and murders, a series of crises which keep escalating into bloodier conflicts, worse misunderstandings.

The writer-directors are an Arab/Jewish team, and co-director Copti is also one of the actors, playing Arab Binj, one of the victims. One character, Dando who’s an often brutal Jewish cop (and himself a victim of violence), is played, extremely well, by an actual Jewish ex-cop, Eran Naim. The whole film is shot in that pseudo-documentary style (like the one Kathryn Bigelow uses in The Hurt Locker), where the actors are offhand or explosive and the camera keeps moving and jiggling.

I sometimes think that the Middle East’s problems might start to be solved if the area‘s filmmakers were running their countries, instead of the politicians. Israel produces some of the most humanistic and moving films around, and so does Iran. And this movie, even while its story tells of discord and tragedy, shows what people from different communities can do together, if they rise above hatred and division, and make an artistic community of their own. (In Arab and Israeli, with English subtitles.)

– Michael Wilmington
February 18, 2010

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon