Ever had a movie spoiled for you? I mean the ending completely and utterly blown?
In descending order of both recency and annoyance, I present three examples:
3) Twenty years ago, my aunt was watching ‘Dances With Wolves’ when some stumbling inebriate came lurching into the cinema, a good hour and a half into the film, and stood swaying in the aisle, blinking myopically as he focussed on the screen. “Oh yeah,” he slurred, “seen this. Wolf gets shot.” And blundered back out.
2) Ten years ago, a mate of mine was driving to the cinema to see ‘The Sixth Sense’ – actually frickin’ en route – and listening to the car radio when a blabbermouth DJ gave the ending away.
1) Last year, the day before I was planning to go and see ‘Shutter Island’, I read an online review whose author didn’t have the common decency to throw up a spoiler alert. Moreover, the way this doofus painted the ending, it sounded like the kind of movie I’d feel conned by and get annoyed at. So I stayed away. There’s something downright fucking unholy about being made to feel that you need to stay away from a Martin Scorsese film.
A few weeks ago, I felt that enough time had passed and added it to my rental list. The DVD turned up over the weekend. On Monday evening, fortified by half a bottle of wine, I sat down to watch it.
Damn, I wish I’d seen it at the cinema!
Granted, ‘Shutter Island’ isn’t perfect – at nearly two and a half hours it’s overlong and its revelatory final act threatens to drown the drama in exposition – but as an exercise in one of the modern masters of mainstream cinema basically fucking with the audience, it’s as audacious as it is pulpy. Even if Scorsese hadn’t namechecked Val Lewton as an influence, there’d be no doubt that ‘Shutter Island’ is his second sortie into schlock, his biggest and boldest battering at the barricades of the B-movie since Max Cady strode tattooed and unreformed from jail in ‘Cape Fear’ and promised that “you will learn about loss”.
In ‘Shutter Island’, US Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo diCaprio) learns about –
And here, ladies and gentlemen, is as good a place as any to ensure I don’t do unto others as was done unto me. In other words: SPOILER ALERT. I say again: SPOILER ALERT. And for a third time, just to make sure nobody holds anything against me: SPOILER ALERT.
In ‘Shutter Island’, US Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo diCaprio) learns about himself. About his past. About why his dreams are rendered into nightmare by memories of his dead wife Dolores (Michelle Williams). He learns why he doesn’t really know anything about his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) prior to their assignation to track down an escaped mental patient on the Alcatraz-like clinical facility of the title. He learns why his painful memories of the liberation of Auschwitz and inextricably bound up with the present, why he is so fixated on the whereabouts of deranged arsonist Andrew Laeddis (Elias Koteas), and what the cryptic note left by the enigmatic Rachel Solando (played in two incarnations by Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson) truly means.
The dual casting of Mortimer and Clarkson is genius. Both have a fragile beauty, a visceral intelligence and a quixotic combination of vulnerability and steely resolve. The two Rachels, for me, are the key to the film. ‘Shutter Island’ is a study in duality. In Teddy’s mind, the facility gets mixed up with the death camps; his wife with one of the inmates; the head of security with a Nazi officer. The facility’s senior management seems to exist under a similar schism. Who is really in charge, the suave but persuasive Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley) or the authoritarian Dr Naehring (Max von Sydow)? Teddy’s dreams – vividly depicted in some of the film’s most challenging visual tableaux – centre around fire and ash, yet his fear of water is what opens the floodgates (pardon the pun) to the narrative’s nastiest resolution.
Having seen the film only in the context of knowing its ending, I’d like to hazard a guess that like, say, Dario Argento’s ‘Deep Red’, it’s a work that becomes infinitely more rewarding – certainly a film that reveals itself as subversively multi-faceted – once you know what to look for. The opening scene, depicting Teddy and Chuck’s ferry crossing to the island, initially comes across as shoddily edited, all weird cuts, spatial dislocations and shots that clearly don’t match. In hindsight, it’s cinematic sleight of hand, a woozy syncopation that throws the viewer out of normalcy and into a state of mind.
Scorsese perpetuates the tactic right up until the final act: gothic imagery abounds, apocalyptic storms lash the island, the agonies of Mahler are seared into the soundtrack, paranoia bleeds into the fabric of the film, conspiracies ooze out of the woodwork and the stone walls, identities are incrementally challenged, reality and madness dance a dizzying pas de deux around each other, and the lunatics – in more than one chillingly effective set-piece – seem ready to take over the asylum.
In one respect, ‘Shutter Island’ is an almost-masterpiece of psychological portraiture; in another its pure shlock. The viewer willing to let go and just experience the head-fuck will find something reasonably close to the best of both worlds. For a work of such aesthetic artifice, ‘Shutter Island’ is pure cinema. It embodies a dichotomy and damn near resolves it.
To the doofus whose review I mentioned earlier, thank you for giving me the tools by which to fully appreciate ‘Shutter Island’ on first viewing. And screw you that I didn’t go see it on the big screen.