Shutter Island

April 8, 2010

Beware of Spoilers of ‘The Twist’, even though it is obvious enough if you’ve ever seen the trailer or, in fact, any movie ever.

Forty years in the industry with a handful of genuine masterpieces under your belt can get you a lot of things in Hollywood. Funding, for one, although certainly it is more difficult if some of your films are really successful. Grade-A acting talent at lower pay-rates for another, which is exactly what you need to spark the interest of the general public in your moderately budgeted picture. Also, and perhaps more dubiously, a Golden Globes lifetime achievement award and a Best Director Oscar because you didn’t get one back when you truly deserved it. Martin Scorsese can take comfort in all of these things. He’s earned these perks. And now, he’s got another one: the benefit of the doubt from a blogger.

There are a lot of things that can easily be argued as ‘wrong’ with Shutter Island. From the opening scene on the boat that takes Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, playing loose with the Boston accent he pulled off so well in The Departed) and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to the titular island-cum-insane asylum. The rear projection calls far too much attention to itself, and while it is bound to be a nod to Hitchcock, it is disorientating or just downright lousy, depending on how you look it. The editing in this scene is arrhythmic and nonsensical, creating an off-kilter mood that either announces the fractured state of the mind or is just plain clumsy, depending on how you look at it. Given Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s extensive collaborations in the past, I expect they did this is on purpose, but it would be tough to argue against someone who found otherwise. The music itself, culled from mid-20th century avant garde composers is loud, clanging, over-the-top, and filled with foreboding. Much of the film actually lends itself to the reading of a cheap B-movie throwback, which is not a bad thing in and of itself, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to find the whole thing to be revealed as the hallucinations of patient who has just read too many dime store pulp novels.

The gaudy nature of these opening scenes never really goes away, and it is for this reason that I think it all intentional. Quick flashes to surreal scenes of paper floating around the office of a concentration camp lead to extended dreams/nightmares about falling ash and burning buildings. As Daniels falls into the ever-stranger void of fear, grief, and insanity, these dream worlds collide with reality. A violent storm hits the island, and as Daniels’ mental state deteriorates, so does the physical space he occupies as trees are ripped from the ground and branches fly about, cluttering the environment in debris. The relatively tame if unattractive facilities where he interviews patients grow gothic and labyrinth once he travels to the former fortress that is now the island’s maximum security wing. Two things that really can’t be faulted, especially in these sequences, are the cinematography and the sound design. The man emerging from his cell in a dark shadow to extoll confusing information to Teddy looks extraordinary, but even more impressive is the sound of the matches striking. It might be another too-obvious device, but the effect is shattering nonetheless, and the film continues to move from subtly disjointed to outright surreal (see: rats emerging).

An eagle-eyed reader might have noticed that I have made no mention at all of the plot. This is simply because I never cared about the plot. There were minor things, like what happened at the concentration camp, that I was interested in, but the overarching story, that of a Federal Marshall on the hunt for a missing patient, always felt beside the point. Not that it was dull to watch the investigation, as crucially so much of it had more to do with Teddy himself rather than the woman he was looking for. It gets more and more paranoid and conspiratorial as the world continues to fall apart, but I never really cared to find answers. This might, in fact, be the biggest failing of Shutter Island. Any mystery requires the viewer to want to find out what happened, but as it’s clear from very early on (through genre conventions, Scorsese’s direction, and of course the trailer), there’s absolutely no stakes in the investigation whatsoever. To satisfy the expectations, the director should hold his cards close and slowly reveal clues and answers to the audience, so in that sense, it really is a failure. I’m not so sure, however, that it would have worked very well not knowing the twist. I probably enjoyed the experience knowing what I knew more than I would have otherwise. There were still answers to be given by the end, even after the big reveal, but this was probably the weakest section of the whole film. Too much explanation and too-long recreations take it out of the surreal atmosphere of the cracked mind and into the realm of straight-forward narrative resolution, something that does detract from the experience of the film itself.

Despite the ending, which isn’t wholly unsatisfying anyway, I do think Shutter Island is an achievement. It’s fascinating, engaging, and sometimes really quite moving. Knowing how it turns out frees your mind up to take in the atmosphere and the mood, and really feel the intense emotions of grief and despair that slowly swallow up Teddy’s world. Some have decried it as a minor work from a major director, but I disagree. It’s the most emotionally honest and raw film he’s done in a decade, maybe longer. I don’t know how much he intended or didn’t, and even if that doesn’t really matter, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s earned it.

-M

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