Thursday, March 04, 2010


"I thought God gave us moral order."

Scorsese's latest has all the trappings of a big old genre blowout. All the trappings are there -- a missing person investigation set on an insane asylum on a more than usually isolated island, a terrible storm that cuts off all communications with the mainland, asylum staff with an agenda, asylum inmates with an agenda, and an investigating officer who seems to be having a hard time keeping his wits about him. Just the ticket for a great edge of your seat wackadoo thriller joyride. Woo hoo!

Alas, Martin Scorsese doesn't know from "woo hoo!" SHUTTER ISLAND is the latest and possibly the weakest (but probably not the last) of the BIG SURPRISE films, like THE SIXTH SENSE, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, MEMENTO, etc. I'm not bragging when I say that I saw it coming before the movie even started, simply by thinking about the fact that there is in fact a big surprise. I remember thinking, "Oh, man, it can't be THAT, can it?" And when it came to the Big Reveal, I started to think that there had to be more to it, right, there just had to be, Scorsese couldn't be settling for that tired old gimmick, really, could he, that couldn't be it?

And goddamn it to hell, it was.

Folks, M. Night Shyamalan himself would have passed on this script for being just too too too fucking obvious. And Scorsese himself doesn't help matters. Never the subtlest of directors, he just goes full-throttle here -- every scene is heavily underlined for maximum importance, and vast stretches of dialogue seem to be marked with an asterisk somehow: Ben Kingsley virtually holds up a sign saying IMPORTANT CLUE every time he speaks. It would work as a sort of affectionate parody of high gothic whodunit stuff, but Scorsese never seems to be in on the joke.

There's just nothing animating the movie, no fun, no idea that Scorsese was having us all on, a la Hitchcock's assertion that PSYCHO was a "fun picture." There's nothing in SHUTTER ISLAND to even approach that glorious little moment in PSYCHO, for example, where Anthony Perkins says, "My mother.. what's the phrase? She's not herself today." There's just no room for that kind of thing in Scorsese's solemn and increasingly joyless universe.

Solemn and joyless can have their appeal, of course. What finally makes SHUTTER ISLAND such an ordeal is the extreme heavy handedness with which Scorsese works overtime to add some perceived SERIOUSNESS to the rather silly contraption of a story. Flashbacks of the liberation of Dachau, no less, are liberally sprinkled throughout the film. There's some nattering about violence being part of the human condition, and a mention of God supplying a moral order. All it really ends up doing is highlighting the real silliness of the goings-on, and not in a good way.

OK, so there are good points. A flashback to Dachau contains a memorable scene about the horrors of war that seems to act as a rebuke to the grinning gleeful savagery of Tarantino's BASTERDS. The film is gorgeously mounted, the cinematography etc. are all perfection. The acting is mostly beyond reproach, with Michelle Williams and Mark Ruffalo turning in particularly fine work. Leonardo DiCaprio does his very best, but I have to say that I found his eternal golden youthfulness to be a major drawback in believing that he is supposed to have witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust firsthand. I'm hoping someone somewhere will explain the cameo from the great Elias Koteas, who appears all too briefly wearing what looks like Robert De Niro's Frankenstein Monster makeup. Is that Scorsese's idea of an inside joke or something?

It has to be said that SHUTTER ISLAND boasts the single coolest contemporary classical soundtrack since Kubrick's THE SHINING, from which Scorsese lifts at least one memorable cue. The soundtrack album is essential owning. If only the movie itself were even remotely essential viewing.


Anthony said...

I agree that the ending's surprise wasn't much of a surprise, but I'm not sure the film's supposed to be seen in such a linear way. As in: here's some mystery, now here's some twist.

What really struck me was how the entire thing felt like that scene in Raging Bull where the "you fucked my wife?" dialogue happens. The unbearable tension of that moment was mapped out over the whole of the two hours.

An ambivalence of "is it? or is it not? or what?" really made the entire thing interesting, and gave a purpose to the excellent filmmaking technique and acting (see Clarkson, Patricia).

I saw it a second time because I had to; the entire thing, I'm not convinced, is as (like I said) linear as we'd be led to believe: there are moments that I'm not even sure are taking place in the logic of the story; and there are others that though they seem "dreamy" or fake enough, probably didn't happen.

After my second viewing, I sat down and wrote out two versions of it, scene by scene (I had just seen it twice, after all) and am pretty confident that the entire movie works like a mobius strip -- everything is both completely false and completely accurate.

And that's what's so fascinating to me about this picture. I think a lot of the hackneyed "this is a clue" signs that are held up are themselves red herrings.

And if that doesn't convince you: what could be more cinematic and despairingly beautiful than the scene where DiCaprio questions the missing woman, only to have her assume he's the husband, and then realize he's not.

In short: I'm a fan.

Anonymous said...

Your critics suck. You think you are so cool for hating every movie that comes out, but it's not really trendy anymore. Go find a job or something

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