February 19, 2010

300 Words About: Shutter Island

"Listen, I'm tired of everyone staring at the bandage on my forehead - I don't know why it's there, either!"

Anal retentive that I am, it's the Little Things that always bother me in movies. An annoying minor character here, a slightly-off foreign accent there, maybe a meaningless misrepresentation of local geography (e.g., the inaccurate depiction of Red Rock Casino on or near Las Vegas Boulevard in the otherwise forgettable 21).

There were a lot of Little Things in Shutter Island that annoyed me (not the least of which was Leonardo DiCaprio's matchlit exploration of Ward C - what brand of long-burning matches illuminate a room like a Maglite?), but the prevailing problem I had with it was that Martin Scorsese didn't rectify them with substantial, even memorable scenes. In fact, it seemed he was content to surrender to formula and let all of the Little Things slide so long as he could get to that Big Bad Ending, which, I have to admit, nearly salvaged the movie.

Scorsese isn't necessarily known to be a sloppy director, but most people would probably call him a distinctive, even daring one, at least during the peak of his career. Isn't it bizarre, then, to see him submit to genre clich├ęs in Shutter Island - and even then mix them awkwardly. One minute we're in the middle of a psychological suspense thriller (Cape Fear held its tone much better), the next we're in a jump-fright horror flick. Oh, and there's a couple of jokes and some romantic melodrama and political histrionics thrown in the pot as well. The result is a squirm-inducing stew of genres that leaves you feeling like you just had a bowl of bad New England Clam Chowder.

Not surprisingly, I haven't read the source material (Dennis Lehane's novel of the same name), but suffice to say a fair amount of Shutter Island probably could have been trimmed. The scenes that do belong are too long, to say nothing of the plodding scenes that don't belong. By the end, we're so disoriented that Scorsese has to bring us back through the entire story just to explain the twist. At times that can be cleverly effective (The Usual Suspects), but here it's a you-should-have-seen-that-coming bookend that frustrating still leaves a number of questions unanswered.

Like any Scorsese film, however, the acting is high-caliber and the film is beautifully shot. Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams and John Carroll Lynch all fill their roles skillfully, and DiCaprio delivers a committed performance that winks a bit at his rather underrated turn a few years ago in Scorsese's The Aviator. Will the acting and twist ending be enough for most people, especially during a time of year when movie-going options are, shall we say, less than inspiring? Probably. But it's a bad sign for a director when a film can only be praised through criticism of its peers, and maybe even a worse sign when a film doesn't even measure up to that director's past work.


  1. Daniel, Thanks so much for this! I need group therapy! I totally agree. Just got back from this in big befuddlement (mostly about Scorsese's declining skills, like, uh, cutting.) Yeah, I get the story - but I was disappointed for many of the reasons you state: mix of genres, length in need of cutting, those matches, DiCaprio's accent, there's no island like that among the harbor islands, and what happened to the goddamn crabs I saw in the preview that I've seen at least 50 times since last spring?

    Oh, the rats were okay. My wife and I have been camping on one of the Boston Harbor islands and the rats ate through my wife's backpack looking for food. Luckily, we had no food in the tent or they would have eaten through the tent. Luckily too, there was no insane asylum on the island and no hurricane to delay the ferry.

    Please put up a Big Bad Spoiler Alert and discuss the "Big Bad Ending" with me - cuz, dude, I was disappointed - unless my interpretation of Teddy's last line about dying as a hero or living as a monster is correct.

  2. I completely disagree this time Dan, and disagree equally with Hokahey's agreement with you. This was an exceedingly riveting and entertaining film that succeeded on a number of levels, far greater than having me take issue with a match light! That's the sign you are really antsy about the film in general! Ha!
    I found the mix of genres an utter delight (Hokahey, what was your issue with Di Caprio's accent? He spoke like a Bostoner, as he should of). The way weather was used both atmospherically and to externalize the events was striking, and the geographical use of the island was employed to superlative effect. Hence, marvelous scenes in a cave, at the lighthouse, in a cemetary crypt house, in a cafeteria and in a doctor's study are all startlingly played out, and Ralph Richardson's lighting and Thelma Schoonmaker's editing are superlative. I loved the ending, and quite frankly did not see it coming.

    And frankly who cares about crabs and whether they were in the trailer? I'm far more interesting in frenzied, psychological drama and splendid atmospherics, informed by some thought-provoking set pieces. Inferior Scorsese? Not on your life. I loved the Dachau concentration camp flashback technique too.

    From me this gets 4.5 of 5. Now that I've registered my indignant rant, let me say as always Dan your writing is lucid and astute, and you don't take anything for granted. In this instance we just do not agree.

  3. Sam -

    The part about the crabs was a joke.

    As for the film, the art direction and cinematography were phenomenal. No argument there. I have always admired Scorsese - especially for his devotion to elements such as art directions, editing, cinematography.

    Some of the scenes were very gripping: when they take refuge in the crypt during the storm; when Teddy swims to the lighthouse and climbs the Vetigoesque stairway to his revelation of the truth - or is it the truth? ("Is it better to live as a monster or to die as a good man?") But Scorsese strung me along a bit too long with all the mysteries that SPOILER turn out to be illusions. Or not? I suppose the problem is with me. I have trouble with a story that comes to the conclusion - oh, you know, most of what you saw happen here was actually an illusion - and I saw that coming.

    As for the accent: DiCaprio drops his R nicely whenever he says "Mahshall" - not so with many other words. I lived in Cambridge for four years; I live on Cape Cod now; my wife grew up in Do'chestah and had a "wicked" accent, so I come from experience. Other than that I admire DiCaprio as an actor and I still think he did a great job in this movie.

  4. When you say that "I suppose the problem is with me" Hokahey, you prove to me you are a gentleman and a man of humilty, and I tip my cap to you for that sir. As to the "accent" thing, in view of your admitted expertise there I will back off completely and admit you are on the inside there, and I'm enlightened by your insights.

    Sad to say, I was not on to the illusion thing until the end, and maybe that's why it worked as well as it did for me, not to mention I submitted to this admittedly preposterous - but deliriously entertaining premise. And yes those scenes you mention, which I also broached in my original comment here are superlative.

    Again, my friend, you are a scholar and a gentleman.

  5. Sadly Hokahey, I've never been able to log comments in at your own site, despite trying a number of times. I'll add you to our own blogroll today, but still at your site the restrictions you have there won't allow me to comment. I suppose I should aggressively try and do something with google, but I am technologically incompetant, and I can't seem to succeed with that.

  6. Nice push and pull here.

    First, Hokahey - I never saw the trailer so I totally missed the crabs, believe it or not. Or rather, I didn't miss them. Anyway, as far as the ending goes ***SPOILER ALERT***I just meant that in general I didn't see Teddy's identity crisis coming as early as most people did. I suppose I wasn't really working that hard to figure it out (I was distracted by things like the mathes and DiCaprio's freeclimbing skills, though his accent surprisingly didn't bother me), so the ending did twist me up a little bit. And I liked the last line, which I interpreted as Teddy consciously accepting that he wasn't "cured". And since we're already on spoiler alert here, are we to believe that Kingsley & Co. orchestrated a hurricane as a part of this experiment? Because...the weather was kind of a big part of it, right?***END SPOILER***

    Sam - uh oh, we're in disagreement in 2010 already. Well as you note I was pretty nitpicky with this and one could argue that I missed the forest for the trees. Like you and Hokahey I thought the atmosphere and cinematography were used to great effect, but nonetheless I just wasn't engaged for the full 140+ minute duration. Funny that we both loved the ending but we differ on the rest. Ah well, this could be a fun one to discuss for a while, that's for sure.

  7. Sam - Thanks for the response. I will check my comments restrictions - but no one else has ever had a problem. On some sites, it's the second try that does the trick after it says it can't process your comment.

    Daniel - The storm - That's where I get confused. I guess it was part of his illusion - part of his excuse as to why he can't leave. I could be wrong. But it fits as an illusion because the storm was so extreme. Huge limbs thrown up on top of the fort. I guess that can happen.

    Also, I am now more disappointed than ever because I have Googled comments about the ending and I have been told unequivocally that the ending is not ambiguous. Teddy is nuts. Apparently Lehane has declared as much. As for the illusion, I thought that was a possibility during the Dachau massacre scene - which never happened historically.

  8. I really want to see this movie! I hope it lives up to my expectations of it.

  9. This...just didn't work for me. I think if this is what passes from a strong work by a great director nowadays, then our standards have fallen considerably. I am shocked by the positive response to it quite frankly. I'm glad to know I am not the only one who found it underwhelming.

  10. No you didn't Matthew. But the good-to-bad ratio is about 2 to 1. I'll proudly stand with the yay-sayers and proclaim this one of Scorsese's most entertaining films.

  11. At this point I think we can dispense with the SPOILER ALERTs. If you're reading this and you haven't seen the movie, well then I don't know what you're doing. Go watch it and come back!

    Hokahey - funny that you say Teddy is nuts, because isn't it actually Andrew who is? In any case I did accept that he was off his rocker, but that in his brief return to reality he understood the consequences of not "straightening out" and then, after realizing he had become Teddy again right away, simply gave in. Or maybe he never really did gain any clarity in that endless lighthouse scene, but that's not how I read it (particularly as we had the flashbacks of what really happened and he went on to describe it).

    Matthew, I don't know if or how standards have changed, but just compared to Scorsese's other work I found this and The Departed to be light, even fluffy, compared to his work 30 years ago (or even compared to Gangs of New York or The Aviator, both of which were anchored by massive acting performances). Maybe it's unfair to compare, but it's almost as if Scorsese just wants to have fun at the end of his career; he's already accepted his legacy and doesn't want to have to carry that "influential" yoke any longer.

  12. Haha yes! If you want a blackout, don't read comments about the movie. :-)

    I actually liked GANGS OF NEW YORK and THE DEPARTED better than this. I think Scorsese has settled into a slicker, more Hollywood-esque formalist kind of stage in his later years. It's not necessarily a bad thing, it's just nowhere near as interesting as his earlier output.

  13. Agreed. I'm actually surprised Gangs of New York didn't show up on more "best of decade" lists. Now that was an ambitious project - 10 Oscar nominations and nothing to show for it. Pretty stunning.

  14. GANGS is probably my favorite Scorsese of the last decade, even if I think it's also the most flawed. It definitely has screenplay issues, and I thought DiCaprio's performance was uneven, but its power and scope is pretty impressive. And of course Daniel Day Lewis gives a tremendous performance.

  15. I just can't believe it didn't win one Oscar - it even lost for art direction and costumes to Chicago.

  16. Daniel, we disagree on the quality of Shutter Island, but your photo caption is priceless. :)

    I had fun with the movie, which is about all I ever expected. I loved the look and the style and the mood and the acting. The plot I was less crazy about, but then I've never liked anything that has been based on a Dennis Lehane novel.

    Maybe because I was expecting it based on what you said earlier, but I didn't find it to have too many of the jumpy "gotcha" shocks. There were a couple, but what I left with was the queasy dreamlike quality the film carried from the opening frame.

  17. Hehe, thanks for the caption comment. Did I totally miss how the bandage was explained, or, even if it was, how it managed to stay on through all that?

    Really this comes down to our differing expectations, I think. I was looking for a probing psychological suspense drama (which this was in parts), not necessarily a creepy, even somewhat forgettable thriller.

    We can still agree though that the atmosphere and "dreamlike quality" was ravishing to the eyes.

  18. We might be the only ones confounded by the band aid, but for the life of me I don't know what the answer is.

    Symbolic maybe? It was obviously something they thought about because they did a great job with the continuity of it as it got shabbier and shabbier as the film progressed before finally coming off.

    I wouldn't be surprised to see "Band aid wrangler" in the closing credits.

    I think I get where you're coming from on this one. I think even though I was excited my expectations were pretty low. I wasn't expecting Raging Bull or Goodfellas or Taxi Driver and it WAS smarter than the usual genre thriller.

    The best way I can describe my own reaction to it (and I've already done so elsewhere) is to compare it to The Ghost Writer. Technically I think the Polanski flick succeeds more fully at what it sets out to do. It's entertaining as hell and pretty flawless except for the underlying mystery I found kind of disappointing. With Shutter Island, I think the source material was pretty weak, but the execution was entertaining and interesting as hell. Though I'd give Ghost 4 stars out of 5 and I only gave Shutter 3.5, between the two I'm more eager to see Shutter again. It was flawed, yet fascinating. Ghost was smooth, but doesn't have much interest to me now that I know how it turns out.

    Does that make any sense at all?

  19. Makes perfect sense, though I've avoided all Ghost talk like the plague for fear of The Twist that someone mentioned. And to be honest I would actually take another look at Shutter Island if it came on in front of me, just to piece it all together backwards in my head, and of course to look for continuity issues with the bandage and other things.

  20. I was thinking of seeing this film, The White Ribbon, or The Crazies this weekend. After reading what you had to say, I might buy Shutter Island to read and catch the latter two films.

  21. Well take what I say with a grain of salt considering Shutter Island has won the box office two weeks in a row and a lot of critics are behind it. My guess is that the book will be a better experience for you than the movie, though.

    I had planned to see The White Ribbon, too, but that hasn't happened yet and I only have one chance before Oscar night.

  22. Just watched this. Boy does the ending save this film. I mean its like the ending to The Phantom Menace: Without the last twenty minutes the film would be disposable.

    I love and admire the fact that he chooses lobotomy and forgetting his wife and kids or sanity and remembering. Very brave.

    I didn't catch it at first until I thought about it. When he says would it be better to die as a good man or live as a monster was the dead give away. Even his primary doctor catches it as he rises from the stairs and says: "teddy?"

    Good ending, lackluster film with good moments here and there.

    I might have to review this film...and read the book.

  23. You sum it up there in your second to last sentence. Everybody has good things to say about the ending, but aside from that it's a fairly forgettable film, at least in my opinion. I have to find anyone who thinks the movie is better than the book, too, so that might be a better place to start.

  24. There are a ton of book ahead of Shutter Island.

    I also liked the fact that Leo's character showed his intelligence: Speaking German and deducing the doctor was German. I was impressed by the second part. Also when the doctors say how many patients are in two separate wards, Leo's character adds them up to arrive at 66. The doctors underestimated his brains at times.

    The score to the film was really good as well.

  25. Hmm, good point about Leo's math and language skillz. I guess that all did fit together as far as the "experiment" went with his high intelligence.

    I'm sure I'll find myself watching this movie on TNT in a few years when it gets massive replay, but until then I'll have to remain somewhat disappointed by the whole affair.

  26. I finally finished, typed up, and posted my Shutter Island review. Check it out when you get a chance.


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