Thursday, May 26, 2011

Shutter Island

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.


jeremythecritic said...

Someone ruined the ending for me also, and it's happened many times before so I definitely feel you there. But I agree in this case knowing didn't do as much damage to my enjoyment of the picture as I thought it would. I want to revisit this, which isn't to say I didn't enjoy it the first time around, because I did. Just have a feeling with some time to settle it might play differently for me now. Dare I say a little better.

In some ways it does help knowing the ending going in since you gradually discover it isn't merely a one-trick pony with a "Gotcha!" twist. There's much more going on than that, as you pointed out. Then there's the heightened expectation accompanying a Scorsese film, which I think (unfairly or not) partially accounted for its mixed response from critics and audiences.

Samuel Wilson said...

No one spoiled Shutter for me, but with Sixth Sense all I had to do was read a review that said the film had a twist ending and I realized that only one such ending was possible. As for the Scorsese film, I wonder whether we can accept the big reveal as the truth while taking the build-up as at least partly unreal. It still seems like a ludicrously elaborate exercise if taken at face value. And I suppose it's the director's third experiment in schlock if you count Boxcar Bertha.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Weird you should review this one today, I saw it two nights ago with my brother on a cold and stormy night!

I agree with you on the editing man, it throws me off! I tried to convince myself that Scorcese did this on purpose to give the audience a sense of unease, as if something is not right, but then, it really does come off as sloppy editing. I guess Scorcese's eyes arent as good as they used to be when it comes to these things. He is getting pretty old after all.

But I do like that sense of spookiness it has. What I love the most about it is that that feeling of old school horror movies lasts all through out the film, specially with that never ending storm going on. I loved that about it.

Theres a scene that looks as if Mario Bava had lit it, the scene where they both hide from the storm in a mauseleum. Its drenched in red and blues...

Bottom line with this one is that even with its flaws, I love it to death.

BRENT said...

Shame you missed this on the big screen. Sure it may have flaws but it would almost be boring without something to pick at wouldn't it??!
I actually really liked this but like you felt it a shade too long. But it projects moodiness and the feeling of unease extremely well.
On the big screen the storm was brilliant and you couldn't escape the feeling of the walls closing in. It was visually appealing and just added to the atmosphere Scorsese created.
Flawed yes, but still better than most films Hollywood churns out each year.

Simon said...

I am of the opinion that Shutter Island spoils it's damn self. Then again, such a twist is so predictable you never think they'd actually go there, and then they do. So, in hindsight, it's brilliant.

The Thing is spoiled in, like, the first scene. If you speak Norwegian, apparently.

Bryce Wilson said...

Nicely done Neil, good job digging into a film that most are all too eager to take at face value. I've found it a strangely rewatchable film, and a rewarding one to reexamine.

Fun fact the ending actually gives an additional twist of the screw with Teddy's Voluntary Lobotomy. When the film you're making can be described as "More fucked up than Dennis Lehane's original" you know you're doing something right.

Neil Fulwood said...

Jeremy - very perceptive comments. You're absolutely right about the expectation that attaches itself to the release of any new Scorsese film: it automatically sets itself a standard to live up to that wouldn't be to the detriment of a work by a lesser (or less well-established) director.

Sam - you had exactly the same 'Sixth Sense' experience as I did: going into knowing there was a big twist at the end, and looking for it from the outset. It took reappraisal of the film, quite a few years later, before I realized how well constructed it is. Man, what the hell happened to Shyamalan?

Franco - Scorsese's often mentioned Bava in interviews, and you're right: there's a definite influence in that chapel scene. The endless storm, battering away at the island, at the asylum and at Teddy's tenuous grasp on reality, is brilliantly cinematic.

Brent - agreed; even with a few flaws, it's still miles ahead of most mainstream releases. And I have to say, I preferred by far to the Oscar-friendly 'The Departed'.

Simon - 'Shutter Island' sails very close to the wind. A couple of moments almost shattered by suspension of disbelief entirely: (i) early on in the film, a nurse refers to Rachel Solando attending "group therapy" (did they have group therapy in the early 50s?); and (ii) Dr Cawley tells Teddy in the last scene that he and Chuck have been using a radical role-playing scenario to try to break through to him. Same question: would this have been an accepted (or even practiced) psychiatric technique in those days? Or is the 1950s construct part of Teddy's delusions and the story is actually set contemporarily? My head's starting to hurt thinking about it.

Bryce - as I mentioned in the review, for me it's the two Rachels that are the key to the film. Once I started examining the characters, narrative and mise en scene in terms of duality, it become a fascinating piece of work to write about.

Thanks for your comments, guys.

BRENT said...

I must be stupid!! Jeremy made an excellent observation as whenever Scorsese, or any other top line director, makes a new film there will always be a heavy expectation.
I saw David Lean's Ryan's Daughter several days ago and it suffered from this very thing. Critics at the time savaged it. As a film it suffered from expectation as Lean already had three brilliant films under his belt. It is a shame because Ryan's Daughter is actually a bloody good film which, as a result of the savaging it got, been sadly forgotten about.
A really valid point made and shows how expectations and critics can influence the success of a film.