Sunday, February 21, 2010

Shutter Island

I noticed when I signed into my Blogger account to write this a whopping five posts in a row discussing Martin Scorsese's much-belated B-movie Shutter Island. Given the broad disinterest shown in the bloggers I follow (not to mention myself) concerning the 2010 features released up to this point, I got a kick out of seeing everyone snap to attention. Adding to my amusement was the fact that the miniature excerpts from all five were variations on "Warning: contains spoilers." I plan to cross-review this for my school paper and I'm too lazy to write two entirely separate articles, so I shall avoid spoilers in this review.

Besides, the various twists and turns of Shutter Island just do not matter, and Martin Scorsese knows it. I have heard grumblings through the grapevine that Shutter Island marks Scorsese's attempt to ape twist-master M. Night Shyamalan. This is categorically untrue; if Scorsese wanted the unlocking of the narrative to be the film's ultimate payoff, he would not have telegraphed it from the first minute. Anyone remotely paying attention to the film can and will deduce its ultimate truth by the 10-minute mark, what with the pointed looks and deliberately overacted emphases on certain key phrases such as "defense mechanisms."

What the director does instead is use the messy pulp of Dennis Lehane's novel -- which I have not read but feel confident on the basis of the film saying is far, far, far removed from his usual output, about as far as Shutter Island is from native Boston -- is craft his best film since Gangs of New York, and his most brazenly cinematic since Bringing Out the Dead. Like Scorsese's underrated mid-'80s style-over-substance feature (After Hours), made in direct response to the aborted first attempt to make The Last Temptation of Christ, Shutter Island is Kafkaesque, though not in a particularly deep way. Where After Hours played its psychological mire for laughs, Shutter Island works as a thriller, but the two share a kinship in their display of Scorsese's boundless visual form and the jollies he gets from throwing caution to the wind.

You can see that the director is having a ball from the first frames of the film, as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonard DiCaprio) converses with his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) as they ride a ferry to the titular island. The camera jumps between them as if Godard had sneaked into the editing room, further interrupting these jump cuts with visual asides to Teddy's past, of his wife (Michelle Williams), whom Teddy says died in an apartment fire. The two men are headed to Shutter Island and its mental health facility, Ashecliffe, to investigate a missing patient, whom the doctors say managed to slip through the facility's considerable security measures "as if she evaporated straight through the walls."

For the sake of spoilers, I shall go no further, nor would I feel much inclination to continue following the narrative even if I felt no obligation to protect the mystery for readers. Shutter Island is a giant red herring, and more than that a red herring that flops about and speaks like those awful singing basses that so woefully became the rage around the turn of the millennium when we are all so happy to have survived Y2K that we made some very poor decisions indeed. Unspooling a complicated but hardly complex yarn would suck all the enjoyment out of the movie, as well as the pleasure of discussing it.

What is important, or at least relevant, is how much Shutter Island runs into the open arms of the glory days of the cinema. The overacting, while easily justifiable in retrospect, clearly harks back to the days before Brando tore apart the rulebook, when actors emoted with a capital "E." As an epic psychological thriller, Shutter Island most clearly derives from two sources: Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and Powell & Pressburger's Black Narcissus (the nature of the asylum and the overacting found within obviously brings to mind Samuel Suller's Shock Corridor). The sheer cliffs of the island match the rock faces that trapped the nuns in Powell's tripped-out vision of India, while the structure of the film, particularly the camera's alignment with the point-of-view of a detective who wrestles with his own perception, comes straight out of Vertigo.

It also marks a return to Scorsese's best kind of filmmaking, the sort that places his camera into the fractured POV of a warped character. Scorsese hasn't filmed in this style since his final collaboration with Paul Schrader, the criminally underappreciated Bringing Out the Dead, and he hasn't lost his knack for spellbinding shots that you can't always trust, even if he's telling a far simpler tale with Teddy than he did with Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta or Frank Pierce. Helping matters tremendously is the gorgeous photography by Robert Richardson, who won an Oscar for his work on the director's The Aviator.

Combined with Scorsese's energetic, freewheeling direction, the Powell-influenced cinematography makes for some startling moments. Who could sit there and argue that the film isn't "real" or "deep" enough as Scorsese gives us a horrifying glimpse into Teddy's past as a WWII veteran, a scene framed in the same "movie movie" style as the rest of the picture yet filled with a weight far heavier than the heartstring-tugging content of what's on the screen? And what of the foray into the dreaded Ward C, where the most dangerous psychopaths are kept, its dizzying, rusted metal staircases and walkways resembling a post-industrial version of M.C. Escher's Relativity?

So, yes, Shutter Island is, at its heart, a 140-minute paean to Scorsese's abilities as a visual stylist. But for all of us who guessed the ending before moving out of the first act, how many could have expected the inevitable reveal to be so moving, so like Vertigo in its striking moment of pure empathy between audience and character, even if that moment is forced upon us by the director? Shutter Island could mark an important turning point for the director, who suffered under the yoke of the Weinsteins on Gangs of New York and lost The Departed to Jack Nicholson. Now, with Oscar in hand, Scorsese is confident enough to be himself again, something we haven't seen in years. His long-discussed adaptation of Shusaku Endo's Silence appears at last to be on track, and Scorsese himself asked for the final delay in this film's release to tweak a few more odds and ends in post-production, effectively removing the film from receiving any Oscar attention this year or the next for the sake of making the movie he wanted. Let us hope, then, that Scorsese makes of this decade what Spielberg made of the last one: a period of astonishing late-career creativity by a director who no longer has anything left to prove.


  1. We agree in several ways, including the fact that the ending is telegraphed. And yet I think it's pretty clear that Scorsese wants the unlocking of the narrative to be the ultimate payoff. Why else would he leave it to the end and then spend about 30 minutes going over its every detail, as if to take glory in its complexity. It's during that segment that we learn, alas, that the "horrifying glimpse into Teddy's past as a WWII veteran" is in fact only a fantasy, thus muting its power in retrospect.

    There's a lot to appreciate about this film. But my biggest complaint is that it isn't a 140-minute paean to Scorsese's abilities as a visual stylist. More like a 110 minute paean, with all too much talk, talk, talk at the end.

  2. Is it a fantasy, though? Crawley suggested that it might not have been the way Teddy thought, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he didn't do what we saw, or at least that he saw the things being done.

    As for the talk, talk, talk stuff, I feel like Scorsese did it not to say "bet you didn't see this coming" but because that's how these things always end. And I think the protraction of the speeches at the end, coupled with the full visualization of the truth, allowed us to get a sense of what it must feel like for everything you think you know to be wrong. By dragging it out, we see the look on DiCaprio's face changing gradually, believably, from angry and stubborn denial to disbelief and, finally, full sorrow. Had it not lasted so long, I actually might not have enjoyed the film as much because I would have seen it as a march to the payoff that wasn't that good to begin with.

  3. Had it not lasted so long, I actually might not have enjoyed the film as much because I would have seen it as a march to the payoff that wasn't that good to begin with.

    Hmm. OK. We're essentially agreeing on what the film does. We just disagree about its aims and ultimate impact. So it goes.

    I think I would have had more patience for the end if not for the scene before with Patricia Clarkson, which also has a "let me lay it all out for the person in the audience who doesn't get it" kind of a feeling.

    Likewise, Scorsese sets up Ruffalo's entrance in the tower as if it's something of a shock. It could be argued, I suppose, that he's aligning us with Teddy -- because for him it is a shock to see "Chuck" again. And yet ...

    If Scorsese wanted us to appreciate Teddy's insanity, he could have followed the Vertigo model and let the cat out of the bag. Considering the lengths he goes to conceal the mystery -- despite all the clues along the way -- I just can't believe that Scorsese isn't trying to pull one over on the audience, too.

  4. Oh, as for the massacre scene ...

    I'm not suggesting it was total fantasy, but Crawley is right about everything else and Teddy isn't. So it seems a little unfair to, on that instance, decide that Teddy's visions are accurate. I understand the urge to do that -- because it's a great scene and you (and I) want to believe it, and don't want to find out it wasn't real. But it would certainly be the break from the norm if mostly true. In fact, Teddy's other visions suggest that it might not have been true at all.

  5. "So, yes, Shutter Island is, at its heart, a 140-minute paean to Scorsese's abilities as a visual stylist." Yes, Jake, I agree that Scorsese is a great visual stylist. We need more directors like him to carry on the tradition. This film could have been edited more tightly, but I like what Marty does here with atmosphere created by wonderful art direction and cinematography. For the most part I can't fault the filmmaking - I just couldn't help being so disappointed by the it-was-all-illusion conclusion. Damn! I didn't want Teddy to be nuts - but I could see we were headed in that direction for most of the film.

  6. Jake - Wonderful essay here and we some to agree on a lot of points in our posts.

    Jason - Isn't the point that it's impossible for them tell what is and is not fantasy? Cawley even says something along the lines of (paraphrasing), "You probably were at Dakau, but who really knows if you ever killed anyone there." The impression that I got was that he was a veteran who probably saw things like that, but with his state of mind it's impossible to decide truth from fantasy. The mystery is given away very early, so we obviously read it different on how big of an impact was intended. It would obviously be a shock to those that didn't see it coming, but I find it miraculous that it wasn't understood by most viewers at least by the time that Teddy makes it to the top of the cliffs.

    I can somewhat agree with your complaint, though, that things could have been told without so much talking at the conclusion, where everything seemed to be getting "tidied up." Still, that's a minor complaint from me for a film that I otherwise loved.

  7. Well I'm completely on Jake's side of the ring here, but all the talk, talk, talk is part of its self-reflexive nature. Jake's rightly mentioned Black Narcissus here, and its influence on the film's look is absolutely immense, but another Powell film that must be mentioned is Peeping Tom. One of the things that people did and still find so disturbing about that film is its playful tone, and its very British cheekiness even in the face of absolute horror (it's clear Moira Shearer is turned on right up to the point she realizes Mark is gonna kill her). I was incredibly moved by the ending of Shutter Island, but right up to that final flashback Scorsese is making very cheeky, Powellesque jokes. I mean, for Christ's sake, that blackboard is ridiculous! We're supposed to laugh! It's preposterous. Scorsese isn't pulling the rug out from under us with the twists, the twists don't matter. He's pulling the rug out with these abrupt tonal shifts, that call into question cinematic conventions. Peeping Tom is a movie that is very ambivalent about cinema itself; Shutter Island is certainly more celebratory, but don't think for a second that all the psychobabble at the end is supposed to be taken at face value. Scorsese is holding Hitch's feet to the fire even as he celebrates his cinema, and most importantly he understands that Hitch himself was aware how reductive the psychoanalytic components of his cinema was.

  8. Jason: I would argue, though I'd like to see it again before I steadfastly commit to this (hell, I'd like to see it again just because I loved it) that the reason for keeping up appearances is two-fold: like everything else in the movie, it buys into an older style of filmmaking even though Hitch certainly delighted in busting the norms. Second, I think it aids his attempts throughout the film to place the camera in Teddy's POV, so that we are processing clues that he can't but aren't told the whole story until he is because we never leave his mind. I understand your frustrations, but I think his way works.

    As for the massacre bit, I think Dave addressed it. There's enough ambiguity in Crawley's statement to continue to believe Teddy despite what we learn about him.

    Hokahey: I think it's really interesting that we're given a protagonist who turns out to be insane and must cope with that. I think the protracted ending, while certainly not enough time to really mull over this reveal with the character (that could have been a whole other movie), lets us get a notion of what that really feels like outside of simple plot mechanics.

    Dave: Thanks very much, and I agree with a lot of your response to Jason.

    Doniphon: I think the psychobabble sort of re-configures Psycho, making up for the interminable exposition by framing the scene in such a way that the psychiatrist is delivering his monologue to Norman, so to speak. In that way, we see tragedy where in Psycho we're meant to be infinitely unsettled by the final shot of Norman alone after the overlong explanation. Had the psychiatrist been in the room and explaining to Norman's face the world he'd built for himself, we might have felt the pity we felt for him earlier in the film, and that's what I like so much about the ending.

  9. "Is it a fantasy, though? Crawley suggested that it might not have been the way Teddy thought, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he didn't do what we saw, or at least that he saw the things being done."

    The WWII scenes were fact. Crawley confirms so at the reveal, when he reads from the file that the stuff Daniels claims about his past is all true up to the apartment fire, which rather than being started by "Laeddis" and killing the wife was the wife's unsuccessful suicide attempt.

  10. Dave, Jake, Gilman: I think Dave says it best: "Isn't the point that it's impossible for them tell what is and is not fantasy?" I'd agree with that. I certainly disagree with Gilman's take that "the WWII scenes were fact." I'm not arguing that you can't decide those scenes are factual, but as Dave confirms, the doctors say there's no way of knowing.

    So, at the risk of repeating myself, why trust Teddy? This is a guy who imagines a hurricane that doesn't happen, a prisoner breakout that doesn't happen, a woman in a cave who isn't there, etc, etc, etc. Can there possibly be a more unreliable witness? Or couldn't the WWII stuff be a coping mechanism to avoid facing what happened with his wife and kids? Look at the pattern. Which seems more likely? What reason do have have to trust the WWII flashbacks other than that Teddy imagined them and they might have happened? (Teddy also imagined his wife died in a fire; we see "evidence" of that, too.)

    As for the mystery ... I was on to it about as soon as it was possible to be on to it, I think, and I find it strange, too, that people could watch the scene at the cliffs and believe it to be real. Then again, despite all that isn't real, here we are debating those WWII scenes; if those are valid, they are the only valid flashbacks other than the ultimate one, which is massaged out of Teddy by the doctors. My point is this: if Scorsese's intent is for us to be hip to the delusions all along, he sure is muddled about it in a way that conveniently allows the movie to retain its core mystery.

    To be clear, I enjoyed the film more than not. But my argument is that if Scorsese wanted to make a film about Teddy's madness, then he's put an awful lot of effort into disguising it. Curiously, Scorsese tries to conceal Teddy's madness and examine it at the same time. Thus, he's misdirecting at least some members of the audience from the very thing that's most interesting. To me, that's problematic, though I'm certainly not trying to argue folks out of their own enjoyment -- on whatever grounds.

    Good debate, all.

  11. Jake, absolutely, I agree, and in doing that Hitch is calling attention to this gap between what is explained psychologically and the event itself, there represented by Norman's face. De Palma did the same thing with his Psycho remake Dressed To Kill, which ends not with the psychological explanation but an extended dream sequence (De Palma has many of these) which implies that the psychology never convinces, that the trauma never fades. The same thing is going on here, and like Hitch and De Palma, Scorsese is highlighting that unbreachable gap between the explanation and the event itself.

  12. You're probably the first person I've ever heard call BRINGING OUT THE DEAD "underappreciated"...and it just made my day to read that.

    There is actually quite a lot in this review that I agree whole heartedly with. All I can say is that I can;t wait to see it again - both to give the narrative a closer look now that I'm in the know, and to shake off the memories of the crappy audience I shared a screening with.

    Random question - am I the only one whose theatre was packed on opening weekend?

    Oh, and in case you're interested, Big Mike Mendez and I had a long Scorsese conversation during the latest episode of my podcast. it's posted on my blog now if you felt like giving it a listen!

  13. Hatter: Bringing Out the Dead stood no chance. '90s Scorsese, outside of GoodFellas and maybe Casino (which I like a lot as I do with almost all of Marty's films but am not gaga over like some), is underappreciated and this starred Nicolas Cage, the most wrongly interpreted actor of his generation. Yes, without a good director he's nothing, but Marty is one of the best of all time and Cage brought it.

    I had a full, crappy audience as well, but I could actually write a post unto itself about the way they reacted to it. Clearly, my theater, in a big college town with very little to do that doesn't involve drinking, was filled with people who expected a horror movie to yell along to, and instead they were made to consider Teddy's decisions and actions, and it was interesting how some people kept loudly whispering the twist that even these idiots could spot while others chuckled at the wrong places (but there was some Powellian cheek here, as Doniphon noted). But the place got quieter as the film wore on, and they seemed to become invested in it. It was interesting, almost to the point that I didn't mind being trapped in such a staggering collection of douches.

  14. Great Review! You bring up some interesting points that I didn't necessarily pick up when I was watching it.