Sunday 11 April 2010

Hazy Scorsese (ST 14/03/10)

Shutter Island (15) 138 mins ***
Green Zone (15) 115 mins ***

It looked as though Shutter Island, like certain residents of the Boston mental asylum from which it draws its title, might never see daylight. Martin Scorsese’s period potboiler - an adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel about two U.S. marshals (here, Leonardo diCaprio and Mark Ruffalo) investigating the disappearance of a female childkiller - has had its release postponed more than once. If it now appears to have been thrown away by its distributors in the week of the Bourne team’s more immediately pyrotechnic Green Zone, one can scarcely blame them: the film itself finds Scorsese on decidedly throwaway form.

For Lehane, author of Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, the stock thriller plot was a vehicle through which to explore prevailing social strictures, and the extremes to which grief can drive a man; for Scorsese, the moviebrat weaned on post-War American cinema, it’s not much more than a compendium of pulpy tropes. DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels - a recently widowed ex-G.I., one of the first to arrive at the gates of Dachau - has demons of his own to exorcise. The shifty asylum director (Ben Kingsley) confers with his sinister European associate (Max von Sydow). Outside, a storm blows in. Soon everyone’s on lockdown.

Essentially, then, it’s B-movie stuff, driven by the same down-winding sensibility that led Scorsese to follow GoodFellas with Cape Fear; a way - after the Oscar-winning The Departed - for the director to trade on cherished memories of RKO thrillers and Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor. Still, at a bloated 138 minutes, Shutter Island feels less grand than attenuated guignol, its troubled production history visible in the frequent crises of storytelling and filmmaking: hokily amateur back-projections, long scenes of exposition, the facile deployment of concentration-camp trauma as plot device.

Yet - as ever with sub-par Scorsese - it’s eminently watchable, and sometimes better than that. Teddy’s dream sequences are blue-chip expressionism, fitted out with the most suggestive editing, score and camerawork major studio dollars can buy. And if you can get past the daftness, there’s some enjoyment to be derived from the film’s passing parade of lived-in character actors (Elias Koteas, Jackie Earle Haley, Patricia Clarkson) trotting out their twitchy and/or outright crazy routines. Belatedly, Shutter Island comes to merit its release; its tongue, though, remains a prisoner to its own cheek.

What makes Paul Greengrass a very modern director is his fascination with networks of information, how disparate people and agencies are brought together. Greengrass’s characters are individuals trying to make sense of chaotic circumstances, whether protestors coming under fire (Bloody Sunday), or an amnesiac CIA footsoldier attempting to piece his memories into a coherent whole (the Bourne films). It’s no fluke that his latest, Green Zone, should finish up panning over an e-mail address book; one of the key themes in this most plugged-in and switched-on filmmaker’s work is how we communicate.

Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland have here adapted Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a wry non-fiction account of the bungled Iraq occupation. On page after page, Chandrasekaran laid out the bureaucratic snarl-ups, the warnings that went unheeded, the intelligence that proved unreliable. For Greengrass, the story lies in how these truths emerged: Matt Damon’s composite hero-soldier Roy Miller goes off-radar to retrieve a notebook containing crucial data on Saddam loyalists, then has to duck rival intelligence factions to put its contents in the right hands.

A fast-moving flowchart, the film allots scant time to the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in its midst. The Iraqi people are represented by Miller’s translator Freddy (Khalil Abdalla), a one-legged patriot who at least gets to bellow “it is not for you to decide what happens here” at his employers. Yet what becomes increasingly clear is that Helgeland and Greengrass, the born problem-solver who ironed the ambiguities of the United 93 story into a compelling official line, have decided: Miller’s actions fix glitches in the network in a way the occupying forces, regrettably, never managed.

For all the real-world chaos Green Zone hints at, its narrative thrust brings it unexpectedly close to triumphalist fantasy, and while one can admire Greengrass’s typically taut, controlled direction, you might think the situation demanded a messier work, one that didn’t eventually require Damon to stand up and insist “The reasons we go to war always matter!” The film’s intelligence is sound, yet Green Zone is finally too tight, too self-contained an entertainment to do justice to its sources, whether the anecdotal, Arabian Nightmares sprawl of Chandrasekaran’s book, or the disrepair of Iraq as we left it.

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