Billy Gray

Aging Bulls

In Movie Reviews on March 3, 2010 at 11:33 am

The movie opens on a ferry off the coast of Massachusetts. Stormy weather and pounding waves compound the vague unease of being at sea. The protagonist’s isolation builds when he steps off the boat and onto a sparsely populated island. He’s here to pick some scattered brains. He starts to lose his own. The foul weather never lets up.

The plot summary fits Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island and Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer. Scorsese and Polanski: two of the greatest living directors who helped define Hollywood’s Second Golden Age. Whose paths took dramatically different turns (Scorsese’s to towering commercial success and Polanski’s to European exile from Hollywood, if not the industry’s heart) just as that gushed-about era became a victim of its own Sex, Drugs & Rock n’ Roll-fueled success. 30-odd years later, they opened movies on the same weekend.

Shutter Island stars Leonard DiCaprio. DiCaprio—Scorsese’s current muse now that De Niro’s busy shooting Little Fockers—plays Teddy Daniels, a federal marshal (as he’ll remind anyone within earshot) investigating the disappearance of a patient (not a prisoner) at the titular island’s mental hospital for the criminally insane (but it’s not a prison).

Ewan MacGregor leads Ghost Writer’s stellar ensemble as the unnamed “ghost.” He’s a hack who is refreshingly aware that he’s a hack. (His last effort was a magician’s memoir called I Came, I Sword, I Conquered.) Despite (or, as becomes clear, because of) his résumé’s shortcomings, the ghost is hired to polish the memoirs of former British Prime Minster Adam Lange (Pierce Brosnan). Lange’s reputation bites the dust just as the ghost meets him and sets to work. (More troubling: this ghost is brought onboard to finish the work of a predecessor who mysteriously drowned before making Lange’s ramblings suitable for publication.)

Shutter Island and Ghost Writer share more than geography and a hero digging around for answers where he’s not welcome. There are conspiracies afoot in both revealed in last minute twists (only Ghost’s has a chance of jolting the viewer) with a roster of kooks making cameos along the way.  Scorsese relishes his too-brief glimpses of campy loony tunes that eventually run the asylum as much as Polanski lets the salty Martha’s Vineyard locals—the kind that haven’t left the island in 50 years—shine.

But Shutter Island is a period piece. And Ghost Writer is almost suffocating topical. Scorsese piles on the ‘40s trappings—fedoras, grey flannel suits and three-too-many Holocaust flashbacks. But he also pays homage to the genre movies of the day–particularly Hitchcock’s—and their flourishes (arguably conventions). There’s the emphatic, cello-heavy score, the relentlessly foreboding atmosphere and the “everyman mixed up in trouble beyond his control” conflict.

Polanski (understandably reluctant to dwell on the past) goes for the contemporary craze for all things minimal, from Pawel Edelman’s stark, gorgeous cinematography, sleek costume design (by Dinah Collins), gadgets and a modernist, Architectural Digest-ready house embedded into the Vineyard dunes, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows delivering panoramic views of the ever-turbulent ocean.

Some things never change: despite the eccentricities and perversity you find in Polanski’s plots and characters, he mostly maintains a cinematic classicism. One of the reasons Chinatown’s incest revelation is so jarring is that it disrupts an elegant, pre-Code, film noir backdrop. Scorsese was frenetic from the start, maybe because he came of age during the coke-fueled ‘70s, a few years after Polanski. How else to explain the crazed tracking shots and jumpy zoom-ins?

In his review of Gangs of New York, A.O. Scott faulted Scorsese for reducing his female characters to lynchpins of male action. Shutter Island sticks to that, with Leo’s wife Dolores (a solid Michelle Williams, seen in flashback) doing little more than instigating Teddy’s downward spiral. (She also buys him a fantastically ugly tie). But who cares if Scorsese’s made a guys’ movie when he stacks it with so many great actors (Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow all lend support) digging into their roles and showing how to properly chew some scenery.

Polanski’s women often steal the show (Mia Farrow, Faye Dunaway, Catherine Deneuve) and Olivia Williams is no exception. She gives a compelling, icily elegant turn as Ruth, Adam’s shrewd political wife—a role that’s often peripheral and impotent in movies and real life.

At one point in The Ghost Writer, creepy (of course) Harvard professor Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson) says “young people today are so much more puritanical than we were.” That might be a personal swipe from Polanksi (who insists that only priggish Americans care about his sex scandal). But it can also be read as a criticism of today’s young directors; few of them take the risks that Polanski, Scorsese and crew injected into New Hollywood.

And while neither of these greats reinvents the wheel with their latest offerings, they prove that the masters can lift the sometimes generic Hollywood thriller template to new heights, whether with Scorsese’s bells and whistles (which are too fun to be distractions) or Polanski’s confident, straightforward mastery.

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