Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Review: Shutter Island

Shutter Island


Shutter Island. Hmmm. It's hard to describe my feelings for this one. Let's try this for an opening bit: never have I seen so many incredibly talented artists doing such admirable work in service of such a worthless effort. Shutter Island follows Federal Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo Dicaprio) and partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) as they travel to Shutter Island, a penitentiary for the criminally insane. One of the island's prisoners have gone missing, and the hospital staff has requested assistance. What begins as a routine missing-person case quickly twists into a labyrinth of lies, charades, and emotional baggage.
Let me start off by saying that almost everyone involved with this film is immensely talented, and is clearly giving it their all. Leonardo Dicaprio, who has been described as 'a character actor stuck in a leading man's body' produces yet another intriguing character study; doubtlessly, he's one of Hollywood's best young actors. Mark Ruffalo provides a believable and charismatic foil for Dicaprio's sullen brooding. The 'evil psychiatrist' roles are fleshed out beautifully by Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow, and extended cameos from the likes of Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, and Jackie Earle Haley are intensely acted and fiercely memorably. The below-the-line work is stunning: cinematographer Robert Richardson, a frequent Scorcese collaborator, creates images of astounding beauty, with almost tactile stylizations. Production design by Dante Ferretti is inspired by Grand Guignol horror films, but takes on its own noirish sensibilities. Thelma Schoonmaker, editing demigod, effortlessly draws tense rhythms from the scenes and creates a pushing, grating suspense that will leave more than a few viewers shaken. And of course, one must mention the maestro behind it all, Martin Scorsese: a vibrant, kinetic film-maker who appeals to all five senses, Scorsese is at the top of his game here. The flash-back sequences in particular are stunning: one scene, set in Auschwitz, in which American soldiers gun down unarmed prisoners, is an astounding piece of film-making: its unrelenting horror combined with its ability to immerse the viewer, did more to dramatize the horrors of The Holocaust for me than the entirety of the more stiffly and formally made Schindler's List (...with the exception of the Warsaw ghetto liquidation sequence. That still messes with my head). Additionally, the imagined scenes between Dicaprio's character and his dead wife are jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

So where the hell did this film go so terribly, terribly wrong?

The review has been glowing thus far, so I imagine you must think I'm over the moon about this film. Wrong. I very, very strongly disliked it. That second star is in acknowledgement of the potential film, lurking under the surface of this one. Shutter Island could have been a masterpiece; instead, it's well-made crap. My best guess for pointing out where this one shot off the rails must point toward the screenplay. No, before the screenplay even: the story. The source material, a Dennis Lehane mystery potboiler, is just a terrible, terrible story that follows this infuriating movement in Hollywood that dictates that all horror/thriller films must have some grand twist at the very end. Well, readers, Shutter Island has a twist, but what's the point? Does the point deepen the story, or comment upon it? Does it enrich the viewing experience? No. It's done entirely for that 'Gotcha!' moment that, for whatever reason, our moviegoing culture has deemed necessary. Well, I may have been gotten, but I sure didn't like it. An ending like this only serves to show that the writers and film-makers were too nervous about the quality of their story to allow it to speak for itself. Throw in a hokey twist, and bam! No one cares about the crappy story that came before it.
The screenplay certainly doesn't help, either. Most of the lines fall somewhere between banal and absolutely ridiculous. That all the actors were capable of giving such impassioned performances whilst working with dialogue from my seventh grade English notebook is miraculous.
...Do you ever get the feeling that you're watching a movie that should have been made as a silent film? I do, increasingly frequently. Shutter Island is one of those films. Indeed, Scorsese seems to recognize that as well. Take the fantasy sequences, for example: the images are beautiful, compelling, and tell a story in their own right. The dialogue needlessly and clumsily retreads what we've already seen. Imagine how perfect these sequences might have been without dialogue, or, if we must, a title card every now and then offering a bit of information. The same applies for almost all of Shutter Island. If only Scorsese had the balls to cut the chatter, this could have been a real work of art. Instead, we get a veritable gaggle of talented artists doing their best to save a story that has long since given up on redemption.


  1. Based on your comments about the twist ending, I have to ask what you thought about Saw. I know it is not a good movie, but I really liked the ending. Did this movie start this trend (or the Sixth Sense or both or neither)? I noticed that the sequels tried to throw in this twist ending, but failed miserably. In general, I have to agree that twist endings are usually not good at all, but I did like the endings of Saw and the Sixth Sense. However, when it comes to Saw, I have told people that if they know what the ending is, the movie is ruined. Perhaps that is a bad sign, and the only reason I like the movie is because of the ending.

  2. I would definitely blame The Sixth Sense for this new twist-heavy movement, but here's the thing: the end twist of The Sixth Sense makes sense in the context of the story. What's more, it enriches what the film has been doing thus far, and makes it a better movie. I have no problem with a twist ending if it adds to what the movie has done thus far. Problem with Shutter Island is that the twist makes everything that came before it completely irrelevant, implausible, and altogether stupid. Saw...Hmmm. I would put Saw in the middle. The twist ending doesn't necessarily advance the story much beyond what it would have gone without it, but it also doesn't mess with the movie that came before it. So, I would contend that Saw's ending is a 'gotcha' moment that exists primarily to provide that thrill, and succeeds in that respect without damaging the movie.