we’re all mad here

spiral So lately for some reason my entertainment choices have all involved psychiatric disorders in some way or other.  Not sure why that  is…

This past week I saw two movies, both of which involve mental illness in some respect.  The first was Shutter Island and the second was The Crazies.  Yeah, what can I say…my taste in movies is all over the map.   Since these movies are currently in theaters I will try to avoid spoilers this time.

Shutter Island starts with federal marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner (Mark Ruffalo) arriving on Shutter Island, which is a large mental institution for the criminally insane on an island in Boston Harbor.  They are there to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a female patient, a woman who drowned all three of her children.  The two agents are on the island only a short time before they begin to find indications of nefarious goings-on at the hospital: mistreated patients, rumors of horrific experiments, perhaps even former Nazi doctors working at the hospital (the movie takes place in 1954 and Teddy is one of the American soldiers who liberated Dachau).  The chief psychiatrist (Ben Kingsley) appears to have his own agenda and before long Teddy and his partner are convinced they are being lied to.  Against the backdrop of a hurricane that takes out the power on the island, Teddy and Chuck try to solve the mystery of Rachel Solando’s disappearance and find out what else is happening on the island and what the psychiatrists are hiding.

In contrast to the murky gloom of New England, The Crazies takes place in the wholesome, sunny heartland of America.   We know it is the sunny heartland of America because there is corn everywhere and the opening scene is a high school baseball game.  As the local hotshot winds up for another pitch, the sheriff (Timothy Olyphant) notices a man wandering onto the field with a shotgun.  When the man, who is the town drunk, won’t put the gun down and makes as if to shoot the kids, the sheriff guns him down and thus begins this little town’s descent into nightmare.    Many of the townspeople begin to show symptoms of psychotic behavior, either becoming hyper aggressive or extremely disoriented and within just two days this small town sheriff and his pretty pregnant doctor wife are forced to defend themselves against not only their friends and families but against their government.  Because, of course, the government is responsible for this.

It is hard to compare them since they are such different movies but of the two I enjoyed The Crazies much  more.  I am not a huge fan of DiCaprio and he does little in this movie to improve my opinion.  He walks through the movie like he is dreaming; this may be deliberate but it makes it difficult to get a grasp of his character.  The movie is very serious and symbolic and there many dream-like sequences woven into the plot so that it is difficult to tell what is real and what is Teddy’s imagination.   This is definitely deliberate and enhances the feeling of paranoia threading through the film (or that the director would very much like to have running through the film.)  Perhaps because it relies so very much on everything you ever feared about institutions for the criminally insane it ends up being a bit predictable.  Although there is a surprise ending it is not really too surprising.  It is a bit shocking, but not in the way I think the filmmakers intended.  I am told that Dennis Lehane’s books are much better than the movies that are made of them; I hope that is true.

The Crazies on the other hand just tells a story from point A to point B.  I’ve  never heard of any of the actors although the woman that plays the sheriff’s wife looked vaguely familiar.  Most of the main characters turn in solid performances; the standout is the guy that plays the deputy (Joe Anderson).    There are few characters of note; the town is very small and most people are infected and go insane very early in the movie.  All the military characters are behind masks the entire time which makes them appropriately impersonal as they set about containing the outbreak; as in all good zombie movies it is a toss-up as to which is worse, the zombies or the government.  The movie is not torture-porn gory, although a lot of people die in lots of ways (shot, burned, knifed, hung, pitchforked, bone-sawed…).  It’s just a straight up zombie movie, nothing complicated.

Both of these movies are pretty cliche.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Shutter Island plays on our shared fear first of insanity and insane people and second of the places in which we warehouse them.  The movie takes place in 1954, on the cusp of the pharmaceutical revolution in psychiatry, at a time when treatments like electroshock and lobotomy were accepted methods of treatment.  It is set on an isolated island during the  midst of a howling storm.  The island is dominated by the hulking stones of an old Civil War fort where, we are told, the worst patients are kept.   The marshals are stripped of their weapons and eventually of their uniforms.  The doctors are all vaguely foreign, except for the one outright “Austrian”, who it is strongly hinted is actually a Nazi.  The movie depends strongly on our shared understanding of these things and our shared suspicion that all psychiatric treatment is torture and all psychiatrists are sadists.  The movie is suitably creepy and if the lead characters had been more compelling or the plot more interesting I might have cared.

The Crazies, on the other hand relies on its own set of cliches, those of the zombie movie genre (even though it is not technically a zombie movie).   There is the mysterious “virus” that infects the townspeople.  There is the brutal oppressive hand of the government trying to contain and hide its mistakes.  There are lots of nice, normal people who turn into mindless and savage killers. There are explosions, lots of gunfire, blood everywhere.  There is a small band of survivors battling their way through the carnage in search of a safe haven.   The movie is based on George Romero’s 1973 movie of the same title; Romero produced the new version, which doesn’t stray too far from the original.  Zombie apocalypse movies are popular these days and it is hard to go wrong with one, so long as everyone involved remembers that the end of the world as we know it is supposed to be fun.  Zombie movies rarely break new ground (Night of the Living Dead pretty much set the parameters for everything that followed it) but the only true kiss of death (heh) for one is pretentiousness.  In other words, don’t get fancy.  So the silly movie about corn-fed, virus-infected homicidal lunatics ends up being a lot more enjoyable a night out than the arty, serious movie about homicidal lunatics.   Go figure.

Coming up next: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.  Because we all want to go among mad people.

Score:  Shutter Island: Meh.

Score: The Crazies:  wOOt!!

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~ by gun street girl on March 2, 2010.

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