The same might be said of the criticisms attacking this latest Scorsese film, which arrived after half a century of conceiving films noted for their expansiveness, here wrapped tightly, claustrophobically, into something unexpected. Just glancing back at his earlier near critical failure, "After Hours," which possessed the same tightly wrapped nature, but played as frustrating comedy rather than horror, one might not be quite so surprised or disappointed with this 138-minutes of fear & entrapment.
We're back in the Boston area once again, this time on an Alcatraz-like rock in the harbor - a huge, forbidding thing on which sits a high-security hospital for the criminally insane. It's 1954; two police officers - wired Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) & his more moderated side-kick Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo - are on a mission to find a missing woman who'd murdered her three children and who mysteriously vanished from the most secure area in the asylum.
The story, taken from a novel by Dennis Lehane, scripted by Laeta Kalogridis, takes the form of a mystery thriller; but as Daniels progresses with driven obsession learns, it's more of a horror story that unfolds - a story that takes him into an environment that tears at him both physically & emotionally until, one fears, he becomes more & more like an inmate (patients, they are called) in this Inferno-like environment.
The mid-50s can be recalled, not only for its "Age of Anxiety," but also for an infamous scientific controversy, whether seriously impaired "insane" patients can be improved with psychotropic drugs on one hand or lobotomy on the other. The pair of doctors responsible for the care of their patients on this rock seem to differ; one (played with understated deliberation by Ben Kingsley) takes the more humane approach, while the other (a more insidious Max von Sydow) seems to prefer electric shocks & surgery as a cure. At least, that's what we're led to believe at first; gradually, as with so many other switches of knowledge, we can never be quite sure.
This is a film in which atmosphere is infused into every moment - the shrouded fog through which the boat brings the two men to the island; the intimidating look of the buildings, insidiously kaleidoscopic in their passages filled with wired cages or dank bricked hallways; the steady beat of a rainstorm that evolves into near-hurricane severity; the craggy rocks pockmarked with dark, mysterious caves.
Most insidious of all - and Scorsese creates this as he does with many characters in earlier films - is the aura which surrounds every person, from the leads to the variety of employees and inmates, as they exude mystery which ever darkens the puzzle as the film progresses. Notes secreted to Daniels hint at overshadowings: "You'll never get out of here," one says. Another is cryptically brief, to be deciphered at a later date. They prove to be chillingly accurate.
Because Scorsese is an auteurist par excellence, he has become known for the care he takes with every segment of his films - in the script, the choice of actors, the editing, etc. With this film he also worked in close connection with his composer, Robbie Robertson. Weirdly appropriate to the Age in which the film was set, they concentrated on "anxious" works from John Cage, John Adams, Gyorgy Ligeti & Krzysztof Panderecki - to powerfully dramatic effect.
He also collaborated fully with cameraman Robert Richardson, along with production designer Dante Ferretti, to achieve the sense of entrapment, of tightened emotions, of hidden mystery. From that ship emerging from the fog (accompanied by Jaws-like thudding) to the gloomy lighting, the shadows & the use of extreme close-ups (particularly of Daniels, who seems to reveal a growing desperation as the film progresses) - all adding to the sense of horror as it, simultaneously, recalls moments from classics favored by Scorsese. (Rumor has it that he actually showed classic film samples to his cast & crew before production, to rev up the similarities.)
Time & again Scorsese pays obvious tribute to Hitchcock, Val Lewton, Tourneur & others noted for their fright films, especially emphasizing that what is not seen is far more horrific than what is. (Tell that to the makers of "Saw" & other contemporary filmmakers who rely heavily on graphic gore.)