We’ve got an unusually good crop of movies opening this weekend. I wasn’t expecting much from Shutter Island, judging from the lurid trailer, and the fact that its release was pushed back too late for Oscar consideration. But Martin Scorsese’s Kafka-like luge ride into psychological terror is quite the trip. Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo star as FBI marshals who get in over their heads in a Gothic asylum for the criminally insane ruled by Ben Kingsley as its Freudian godfather and Max von Sydow as his head-shrinking henchman. Canadian actor Elias Koteas pops up like a jack-in-the-box as a maniacal inmate, and you can draw a direct line from this scar-faced monster to the grisly villain Koteas plays in Defendor—a kinder, gentler, and significantly smaller tale of hazardous delusion by Canadian director Peter Stebbings. A deft, bittersweet drama, Defendor stars Woody Harrelson as a sad-sack simpleton who turns himself into a homemade superhero. After High Life and Grown Up Movie Star, it’s the third domestic release in the past month that does a game job of blowing the cobwebs out of the Canadian art house. In the Canadian tradition, these are all stories of down-and-out losers, but none of them are downers.
A third new release that I can’t recommend too highly is Fish Tank, an award-winning gem of social realism from British director Andrea Arnold (Red Road)—it seems virtually guaranteed to secure an early spot on my 2010 top ten list. And finally, there’s Reel Injun, a funny, fascinating Canadian documentary that unfolds as a slapdash chronicle of how aboriginals have been depicted onscreen from the silent film era to the present. You can find my take on Reel Injun from this week’s magazine here.
Like Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese often seems torn between between making films and worshiping them. And although he’s much less of a pastiche artist than Tarantino, he often does both at once. That’s certainly the case with Shutter Island, a movie that gives Marty full-reign to indulge a love for vintage horror that, until now, has just bubbled under the surface of his work. Not since Cape Fear has Scorsese embraced noir style with such giddy abandon, and in this case he goes further, turning Shutter Island into a cinematic hall of broken mirrors, jagged with allusions and references. This thriller, which plays like Hitchcock on steroids, could be criticized for its lack of restraint. And I’m not just talking about the coy quotes, such as the shower shot stolen from Psycho (with the camera pointing directly into the spray), the iconic lighthouse and the inevitable spiral staircase leading to the moment of truth. Scorsese’s monocle-eyed vision recalls the diabolical designs of Stanley Kubrick and the pulp fashions of Sam Fuller. Shutter Island unfolds as a recurring nightmare, riddled with ghoulish flashbacks, ranging from piles of Nazi death-camp corpses arranged like installation art, to macabre visions of drowned children. Not to mention liberal splashes of bright-red blood—worlds away from the darkly realist gore that floods Scorsese’s gangster movies. He directs Shutter Island with the energy of a filmmaker who’s been dying to sink his teeth into this sort of material all his life, and may never get another chance.
Based on the 2003 best-seller by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River), Shutter Island is set in 1954, at the height of the Cold War, on a fortress-like island that’s home to a horrific hospital for the criminally insane. FBI marshals Teddy (DiCaprio) and Chuck (Ruffalo) come to investigate the disappearance of a triple murderess who was locked up for killing her children and has now vanished without a trace. As the two men are drawn into the asylum’s labyrinthine riddle, they soon become scared, or paranoid, that they are part of a larger mind game being waged by the hospital’s doctors (Kingsley and Von Sydow), who appear to be above the law.
Divulging any more plot summary than that would do a disservice to the story, which unfolds as an onion-skin riddle. But in the thick of this highly stylized narrative maze (and it’s stylized for a reason), there are historic diversions into the annals of psychiatry, detailing sinister experiments in mind control, and the “war” between the new wave of psychiatrists who want to treat the criminally insane and the surgeons who want to lobotomize them.
DiCaprio gives an utterly compelling performance, showing that, while he may never achieve De Niro’s greatness, he’s a worthy heir as Scorsese’s perennial protege. Ruffalo remains on cruise control, which may be partly due to the hazy, opaque nature of his character. Both Kingsley and Von Sydow make a meal of their roles as the omniscient scientists who maintain a deadpan air of Old World civility as they preside over what amounts to a massive haunted house. And as the ghost of DiCaprio’s wife, Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain) ventures into some dark waters and leaves a memorable impression.
I would criticize Scorsese for his habitual excess. The third act feels unduly protracted, and I could use less doting images of dead children. But all things considered, Shutter Island‘s gnarled melodrama is more fun than you might expect.
Despite the presence of two Americans in starring roles, here is the quintessential Canuck answer to the Hollywood superhero movie. A supremely affecting Woody Harrelson stars as Arthur Poppington, a mentally handicapped naif who maintains a deluded alter-ego as a costumed crusader against crime. Like a battered, skid-row Batman, Arthur dresses up in black tights and a jersey with “D” crudely duct-taped onto his chest. His weapons are a slingshot, marbles and an old truncheon inherited from his grandfather. He has a video camera attached to his helmet and tapes his exploits on VHS. In his quest to apprehend an arch enemy he calls the Captain of Industry, Arthur tangles with a corrupt undercover cop/pimp (Elias Koteas) and becomes guardian angel to the Katerina (Kat Dennings), your proverbial crack-addicted teenage hooker with a heart of gold—fool’s gold that slowly turns into the real thing as his ingenuous goodwill melts her cynicism. The story is framed by an interview with Arthur conducted by a benevolent court-appointed psychiatrist—Sandra Oh.
Despite the stock elements, Defendor feels original and oddly credible. Writer-director Peter Stebbings has crafted a wry, poignant drama that strikes a delicate balance between humour and pathos. He set it in the industrial grunge of Hamilton, Ont. And Harrelson—unlike so many actors who treat mentally challenged characters as a gonzo opportunity to put us in a sentimental choke-hold (remember Sean Penn in I Am Sam?)—brings a subtle complexity to the title role. As he also shows with his Oscar nominated role in The Messenger (opening next week), this is an actor who’s capable of playing two sides of a troubled psyche, and the intervening shades of gray. In Defendor, his childlike naivete is underscored by a stubborn sense of mischief, as if he’s rationing glimpses of an imaginary world that’s more profound than meets the eye. The performance draws us in. Like the prostitute and the psychiatrist who warm to Arthur, we become surprisingly fond of him. And to see Harrelson’s power as an actor emerge through the guise of this sweet, goofy character, is the most astonishing thing of all.
In recent months, we’ve seen some inspired breakout performances by young actors playing troubled adolescents—from Oscar nominees Carey Mulligan (An Education) and Gabourey Sidibe (Precious) to Canadians Xavier Dolan (I Killed My Mother) and Tatiana Maslany (Grown Up Movie Star). Now you can add to that list British newcomer Katie Jarvis, the incandescent star of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. Like Sidibe, Jarvis was a non-actor before she was recruited to the role. Arnold’s casting agent spotted the Essex teenager having an angry argument with her boyfriend in a train station—from the opposite side of the platform.
Not unlike Grown Up Movie Star, Arnold’s movie is a white-trash tale about a precocious, underage, uncontrollable teen battling a single, irresponsible parent and flirting with an inappropriate sexual relationship. Jarvis brings an abrasive brilliance to the role of Mia, a dance-mad delinquent who’s at war with her party-girl mum, and too easily charmed by her new boyfriend (Hunger‘s Michael Fassbender). Set in a dour English suburb, the film has a rude smack of social realism reminiscent of Mike Leigh, and Arnold employs some of the same improvisational techniques he employs. But Fish Tank has a pop energy that you won’t find in many of Leigh’s films. Sure, bad things happen and the emotional stakes run deep. But striking visuals and a reggae-spiked soundtrack keep our spirits high. I’ll take the punk insolence of Katie Jarvis over the coy quirkiness of Happy-Go-Lucky‘s Sally Hawkins any day. It may be easy to explain Andrea Arnold by calling her England’s female answer to Mike Leigh or Ken Loach, but she directs with a lyrical sensibility more akin to Jane Campion, and a sense of rhythm reminiscent of Jonathan Demme.