Script to Screen Review: Shutter Island


Director Martin Scorsese always had a penchant for solitary and somewhat perturbed male protagonists searching for their place in life at the fringes of society while being terrified of women's sexuality. The obvious examples are Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Ray LaMotta in Raging Bull.  Henry Hill (Goodfellas), Newland Archer (The Time Of Innocence) and, more recently, Howard Hughes (The Aviator) fit into that category as well.

Scorsese's newest case in his ongoing study of troubled masculinity is Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniels is a U.S. Marshall who goes to a maximum security psychiatric ward on Shutter Island to find a missing patient.  Daniels’ character is a great one: twisted, tormented, inscrutable; and at the end still a mystery.

Described in the script as a strong fighter, we first meet him seasick on the ferry that is taking him and his sidekick Chuck to Shutter Island. Upon arriving there they are forced to render their guns. The psychiatric institution's head Dr. Cawley refuses to hand out patient files. As the investigation unfolds, nothing is like it seems. What the investigators hear from patients and doctors does not add up. And Daniels suspects that Cawley isn't really interested in solving the case.

Screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis paces the script beautifully. Thirty pages in, it is pretty much clear that something is not quite right with Teddy. He has bizarre dreams, flashbacks of Dachau's liberation in which he apparently participated, and patients seem terrified of him. But instead of focusing on that, Kalogridis stays on the investigation. She treats Daniels' weirdness like a mere character trait, rather than a big plot point.

Halfway into the script, the missing patient, Rachel Solando, turns up. The film could be over now. But since Kalogridis built up Daniels' character so expertly, she can now fully indulge into the psychological thriller. And this is where the movie goes astray and the script really shines.

It's no wonder Scorsese loved the script. It is very visual. It is very moody. The atmosphere is awesome.   Scorsese shoots it beautifully. The island, the insane asylum, the huge storm that blasts over Shutter Island, the bedraggled patients; all provide sufficient visual material for the director's famously overbearing style.  The editing is sharp. The music is over-the-top, yet strangely fitting. 

But as we creep deeper and deeper into Teddy's psyche, Scorsese could have trimmed down his style a little and allowed the film breathe. When Daniels finally finds the real Rachel Solando, Scorsese can't keep himself from over-directing the two person dialogue.  Flames fill the screen, raindrops look like ink, a lighted match "sounds like a hurricane", as Tom Stempel puts it in his review.

Kalogridis, who did production rewrites for films such as X-Men and Tomb Raider, and is a writer-executive producer for last year's smash-hit Avatar, is more than well-aware of the formula of the average Hollywood blockbuster. And she could have had written Shutter Island as such. But she didn't. She had fun with it; she planted a lot of red herrings, and she wrote an entire movie that essentially bites its own tail. She followed the conventional three-act structure only loosely. And that from a writer who allegedly learned how to outline from James Cameron.

A lot has been said and written about the final twist. But, to be honest, it isn't that interesting or shocking. Kalogridis and Scorsese both hit us over the head with explanation. Daniels has to ascend the steps of a never ending stairway - into his own psyche. Once there, Cawley uses a blackboard to prove to Daniels that he's crazy and that the investigation only existed in his head. We then get 15 minutes of explanatory flashbacks that try to address the issue of his emotional struggle but are purely and simply superfluous. It is all talk, talk, talk, whereas the film was very visual until that point and counted on the viewers to be smart enough to follow the story even when writer and director didn't spell out everything in detail. It is a great touch though to include one sentence from Daniels at the very end of the script that can be interpreted in different ways and keeps the audience guessing if he was really crazy or not. That's all we needed really.

So, which one is better, script or film? I'd have to say the script, because the really awesome part, namely Teddy Daniel's descent into psychological hell, unfolds a lot better on the page when we don't have Scorsese's stylistic pirouettes to distract us.

(Shutter Island. Screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis, Adapted from the novel by Dennis Lehane. October 3, 2007. Writer's draft.)


Evening Dress (La Robe du soir)


writer bio

When I attended the New York premiere of La Robe du soir as a part of the New Directors/New Films series at MoMA, I was expecting to see a film about a young girl’s homosexual lust.  Not because that’s what I was hankering for, but because every synopsis I read emphasized the so-called ‘crush’ twelve-year-old Juliette (Alba Gaïa Kradhege Bellugi) has on her teacher Madame Solenska (Lio). Turns out, that’s not what this film is about at all.  And that’s not just my opinion; French director Myriam Aziza confirmed my suspicions in a Q&A after the film.  Leave it up to Americans to pervert a story about solitude and finding a role model and turn it into kiddie porn.  But I guess that’s what watching 24-hour marathons of Law & Order SVU will do to you.

To be fair, Madame Solenska’s provocative clothing and flirtatious behavior didn’t help my mind stray from the whole ‘crush’ scenario.  Well, that and her using words like “tits” and talking about menopause in front of her seventh grade students.  While inappropriate, I did find it amusing when she mandated that one of her students correct the grammar in a note he was passing to another boy in the class, which said something to the effect of “Ms. Solenska has nice tits”.  But perhaps that’s just a cultural difference?  Or maybe she’s a whore.  The jury’s still out on that one.

Honestly, it wasn’t until the scene in which Juliette dresses up in her mother’s clothes and sings the song her teacher sang earlier in the film, that I realized there was no crush at all, it was simple admiration.  Growing up with a single mother who is rarely home, Juliette is simply searching for a female role model.  But if she wasn’t an adorable twelve-year-old girl, she would have been a complete creep.  I literally got the chills when Juliette found a piece of Solenska’s hair in a book she had borrowed, and after fingering the strand of hair for several awkward moments, she put it in her mouth!  GAG!  Oh, and did I mention that she rode her bike all the way to her teacher’s house just to stare into her windows?  I have to hand it to her though; after feeling like she’d lost Solenska’s favor to the class Romeo, she acted like a real New Yorker when she keyed Solenska’s car and accused her of being a “degenerate pedophile” in front of the entire class.

I thought I’d talk more about the cinematography, music, or lighting, but they were done so well and realistically that they were barely noticeable.  The heart of the film is Juliette’s story and the technical aspects of the work support and enhance the story instead of overshadowing it.  Bellugi gave an incredible performance as Juliette and I was shocked to find out that this was only her third film.  Also a shocker, European pop icon Lio was excellent at “treading the line between education, seduction and power,” as described by Aziza.  Perhaps a pop star turned good actress was the ultimate cultural difference.  (Sorry Britney, you were amazing in Crossroads.)

Directed by Myriam Aziza

2009. France. 96 min.


No One Knows about Persian Cats*


Anyone trying to make it big in the music industry knows all about the obstacles they have to overcome just to get their name out there.  Now imagine a couple of these obstacles being an oppressive government and undercover police whose sole purpose is to terrorize you. These are exactly the conditions that underground musicians must endure in the film No One Knows about Persian Cats.

The film, based on actual events, revolves around Negar and Ashkan; two kids in there late teens with lofty aspirations. They want to start an indie rock band and escape from the fortress that is the Islamic Republic of Iran. The problem is the music they love to create and listen to is outlawed. As if that weren’t bad enough, anyone who performs this secular music is punished severely.

The film rings true in nearly every aspect. The reason being that a majority of the cast and crew are Iranian artists and outcasts in their own country. Director Bahman Ghobadi and the editor of the film Haydeh Safi-Yari, do a splendid job of piecing together a story about the essence of artistic freedom and the lengths that people will go to attain it. The images that they capture and piece together jump out at you and grab your attention with ease. The diverse music and the cast, especially Nader, Hamed Behdad’s character, keep the film afloat despite a mediocre ending.

*Persian with English subtitles.