Thursday, February 25, 2010

Double Movie with Abe: Shutter Island & The Ghost Writer

Shutter Island: Directed by Martin Scorsese
Ghost Writer: Directed by Roman Polanski
Released February 19, 2010

Two films from two respected directors who have been steadily making feature films for almost fifty years and have each arguably produced their best work, and finally won an elusive Oscar, in the past decade (“The Departed” and “The Pianist,” respectively). Both have been buzzed about for reasons other than their content, be it a release date pushed back five months or the arrest of the filmmaker during production. These two films have more in common than being startlingly noteworthy February releases, and tackling them together helps to reveal more about each of them.

“Shutter Island” and “The Ghost Writer” fall safely under the category heading of conspiracy thriller. One man begins to believe that he has become embroiled in a dangerous web of lies and deception, and can hardly trust anyone but himself before the truth devours him whole and he finds his life in peril. In Scorsese’s film, Leonardo DiCaprio is U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, who travels with his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) to an island institution for the criminally insane to investigate the apparent escape of one of the facility’s patients. In Polanski’s film, Ewan McGregor is the writer selected to pen the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) who, in the course of his research, comes to suspect that his predecessor may have been murdered. In both cases, talking to anyone about his beliefs may be deadly for the lead character, and therefore, it’s him and the audience versus everyone else.

The similarities don’t stop with a recap of the plot. Both films take place on islands off of Massachusetts, and in neither film is it the star who delivers the best performance. What’s pleasantly surprising in both movies is that they do feature stellar performances from old men who haven’t given up trying and still know how to put effort into their roles – Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow as psychiatrists on Shutter Island and 94-year-old Eli Wallach and Tom Wilkinson as potential witnesses in the disappearance of the ghost’s forerunner. Additionally, the two films showcase masterful supporting performances from the likes of Shutter Island staff and inmates Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, and Jackie Early Haley, and Adam Lang’s wife Olivia Williams and lawyer Timothy Hutton.

Both “Shutter Island” and “The Ghost Writer” are adapted from novels, by Dennis Lehane (“Gone Baby Gone,” “Mystic River”) and Robert Harris, respectively. The questionable twists that come near the end of both movies are in part related to their origins as books, but more important than the script of each is the treatment of the story by the director. This is hardly familiar territory for gangster moviemaker Scorsese, who has made period pieces before, like “Gangs of New York,” but never quite ventured into this kind of psychological thriller involving elements common to the horror film. It’s an exercise which serves to produce startling and scary moments throughout the film, but what works best is the transformation of a simple conversation in daylight into a chilling and disturbing scene. It’s the notion of being on edge even when there’s nothing to be scared of at that particular moment. Booming, ominous music thunders in even before the ferry first reaches the island, indicating that this is a place of doom, gloom, and death. It’s effective to a point, but the incorporation of supernatural elements explained away as hallucinations by the protagonist weaken the film considerably, and its web of deception is difficult to crack and to be convinced by once it has been spun completely.

Polanski, by contrast, has made movies like “Chinatown” where a man cracks a case wide open and has to deal with the implications of his discoveries. “The Ghost Writer” employs a charging score to heighten its drama and follows its protagonist through an extraordinarily reasonable and believable investigation which doesn’t employ the supernatural at all and instead stays grounded and fully fascinating for the whole of its runtime. Both films clock in at over two hours, making them a tad longer than most audiences might like. They’re both worthwhile in their own ways, but Polanski definitely outdoes Scorsese by keeping his film enthralling and captivating the whole way through, producing a more coherent narrative and a superior finished product, all the more impressive since the one film was finished from a prison cell while the other purposely delayed its release.

Shutter Island: B
The Ghost Writer: B+

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