Sunday, February 28, 2010

Shutter Island

Perusing the various reviews and thoughts on Martin Scorsese's latest Shutter Island I found a lot of varying opinions among those I respect in the blogosphere. Based on these polarizing takes on the film I decided to needed to do something I rarely do and head out to the theater to see for myself what to make of Scorsese's film. Usually when something is this polarizing it means it's at least trying to attempt something beyond a mere genre exercise Рwhich came as a surprise to me considering the film was advertised as nothing more than another example of Scorsese dabbling in a genre he was merely interested in only having fun with a la Cape Fear Рand this had my interest piqued as I read reviews that claimed the film was an attempt at a horror film by a master, like Kubrick's The Shining; was another in a long line of Scorsese's favorite theme of guilt, a protagonist who is haunted by their memories; or, was nothing more than exploitative attempt by Scorsese who seemed out of his league with a story that contains a reveal not worthy of the importance Scorsese seems to think it deserves. Despite all of these varying thoughts Рa lot of which, both negative and positive, I agree with РI really liked this film. I found it absorbing and hypnotic; powerful and affecting, successfully evoking the dread and fear that Scorsese aims for. I didn't think the big reveal ruined the film, I thought it added to it, and the only complaint I can think of is that film feels a bit repetitive towards the end; however, the aesthetics are so strong that they more than carry the viewer through the somewhat monotonous patches of exposition to create a film that has the energy and élan we haven't seen from Scorsese since Bringing out the Dead.

There are countless reviews that offer up a synopsis of the film and discuss its successes and problems.  I'm just going to discuss some of my favorite moments and some of the themes and metaphors that caught my attention.  For more professional reviews and better articulated thoughts (these are essentially my notes I scribbled down in the middle of the night after seeing the movie) I highly recommend the linked reviews above.


Unreliable Narrator/Projected Reality:

I like that Scorsese uses the projected backgrounds as not just a nice homage to the noir films that inspired him, but also as a metaphor for how what we're seeing is just a projected reality…characters going through the motion of their role playing game in order to convince Teddy/Andrew (DiCaprio) that he's really a patient on Shutter Island. It also makes sense in this context why Ruffalo's doctor acts the way he does during the role play as Chuck, Teddy's partner. It makes sense that the types of movies these characters would have seen after the war were film noir, and so we understand the doctor's interpretation of what he's seen in movies, a kind of projection of this mystery world into his very real world based on what he's seen in film. The projected backgrounds beautifully underscore these metaphors, but they also serve a function visually…again not just as a nice homage, but as a way of displacing the viewer making us more aware of the false world/reality we're looking at while Teddy "investigates".

Classic Tropes:

Andrew from Gateway Cinephiles says: "Shutter Island feels for all the world like a florid imitation of a Wes Craven delve, and it's only in the final twenty minutes that the curtain is pulled back to reveal that Scorsese tell, the strand of private Christian torment that stretches all the way back to Mean Streets."

I think that what Andrew is getting out is what is polarizing so many people who have been discussing the film. I don't think the reveal is necessarily all that bad, I just think that the reveal shows us that we didn't get what we thought we paid for: a fun genre exercise by one of America's masters of the cinema. However, Scorsese's use of pastiche again makes sense when we find out it was all in Andrew's head. These are projected realties that have a context in what these characters would have been familiar with at the time: war nightmares/memories, pulp novels, and film noir. Watch the way "Teddy" responds when "Chuck" asks what kind of prison Shutter Island is, and "Teddy" squints out the line: "for the criminally insane." It's all done gloriously in an old Hollywood and 1940's noir style. Some complain that Scorsese's use of these tropes "lessens" the power of the punch the ending intends to deliver, or "exploits" the images of the holocaust and WWII, but I just don't see it that way because Scorsese isn't playing it as a straight genre exercise…he's playing it as a distorted reality in the same way he did with Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

Much like The Shining I also think Scorsese is trying to say that this particular genre is more flexible than the general public believes. Horror doesn't have to be zombies or stalk-and-slash type thrillers, it can be cerebral. As a fan of the genre I'm grateful for that point of view, and one of the things I love that Scorsese does here is his use of relentless ominous music to open the film (especially when they first enter through the gates of the island), or the way he references The Shining with the Ward C stuff, or the way I was reminded of King Kong and the feeling of doom as the boat carrying "Teddy" and "Chuck" approaches the island.  The Ward C stuff had interesting moments with the lights going on and off (another metaphor) and moments evoking that haunted house feel Kubrick made so ethereal in The Shining. The film doesn't go all the way like The Shining does, but it succeeds in the sense that you have a master director here as well using some classic horror tropes to evoke a very effective mood.



Glenn Kenny says: "it's a chronicle of a man who simply cannot stop hurting himself, cutting himself open. And as such I found it terribly moving."

That sentiment above is definitely palpable in the first dream sequence where "Teddy" refuses to let go of the memory of his dead wife. Shutter Island is definitely less "weighty" as some of his other films about troubled protagonists who can't shake their demons (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Bringing out the Dead), but it's still his most moving film, and the one that feels most like Scorsese, since Bringing out the Dead. Again there seemed to be a lot of outcry about the tracking shot of the German guards being mowed down. I took it as a visual correlative that this was a nightmare, a catalyst for Andrew's guilt, which just keeps playing over and over in his head. It's something he can't shake, and that's why Scorsese uses such a long track to shoot the scene. If Scorsese was just interested in the visceral nature of the scene he could have shot the scene wide, or focused more specifically on Andrew shooting the guard, or pulled back and shot the scene from a bird's eye view. But I like that he shoots the scene with that long tracking shot because it feels repetitive (which it should since we're in Andrew's memory) and it feels unrealistic…meaning soldiers shoot the guards in front of them only when the camera tracks over to them. If Scorsese was going for realism every guard would have been shot at the same time, and again, he probably would have shot it using a long shot. The massacre of the guards and the first dream sequence were the two most powerful scenes for me, and showed that Scorsese was making a Scorsese film, not a genre exercise.

I also quite liked the Vertigo reference at the end with the use of the spiral staircase in the lighthouse. I knew something was askew when Scorsese has his character going up instead of down, suggesting enlightenment or some kind of epiphany was on the horizon, as opposed to a spiral into madness – into a personal hell – by showing him descending the stairs. Plus the location of the lighthouse figures to be as generic (albeit effective) a metaphor: the lighthouse reveals things, acting as a guiding light for ships. The stairway is also, as previously stated, a clear homage to Vertigo where Jimmy Stewart's Scottie also ascends a spiral stairway towards a major revelation that alters his life, and gives new context to the memories that haunt them.

A Minor Quibble/Conclusion:

Sure the film could have been Vertigo-lite had Scorsese and the usually reliable editor Thelma Schoonmaker put Andrew/Teddy's nightmares at the beginning of the film. I suppose I understand exactly why Scorsese tells the story in the fractured way he does (who remembers things in a linear way?), but I still think a straight-shot narrative would have more than been able to hold the power of those flashback moments and would have cut back on the repetitiveness at the end of the film. That is my only quibble with the film.

As for the basics like acting and cinematography: Watch the way Scorsese films the boat approaching the island, and tell me you're not reminded of King Kong; or the way Robert Richardson's camera 360's around Michelle Williams and Leo and tell me you're not reminded of Vertigo; or the way ghosts appear and reappear down eerie halls a la The Shining. Like Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds last year, Scorsese's film is filled with cinematic allusions that are bound to elate film buffs everywhere. Remove the Scorsese-ish subtext and you have a film that stands on its own as a rewarding visual experience.

The acting is great across the board, especially the always fantastic Mark Ruffalo who nearly out acts Leo in every scene they share together. It's always good to see Elias Koteas pop up in a movie, and here he deserves Judi Dench-type Oscar recognition for his brief appearance (eerily resembling the burn Cady from Cape Fear). So too does Ted Levine who nearly steals the whole film with his line: "If I bit into your eye right now, do you think you'd be able to stop me before I blinded you?" It's one brief scene, but it's one of the most memorable of the movie. And how about that ambiguous ending? Did he lie about being Teddy again? I wondered if the end suggested that Andrew would rather be lobotomized – erasing the memories that haunt him – than face having to be "sane" but deal with his past demons. It's a coda the 1970's Scorsese would have been proud of.

Marketed as a horror film – more specifically a genre film – Shutter Island is something completely different. It's about as much a horror film as The Shining is. It takes as familiar a genre as there is and uses the audience's familiarity of the beats and rhythm of a horror movie to its advantage, pulling the curtain back and revealing something that is much more exhilarating and powerful, albeit in a cerebral way instead of a visceral way, than we expected. It's a film that's interested in the horrors of the mind, and on that level it's as effective as any horror movie I've seen recently. It's a classical filmmaker attempting to art-up the horror genre with deeper subtexts than we're used to seeing in the horror film – as an unabashed fan of said genre I don't whether to be grateful for the master's attempt, or insulted by the very idea that the genre needs someone like Scorsese for validity – but nevertheless I found Shutter Island to be a total surprise, a film that sideswiped me with its power and deeply affecting subtext.


  1. I love your detailed write-up here and thanks for the link.

    I especially like your "layered" take on Scorsese's use of projected backdrops. I don't think they were simply "homages" to past noirs either.

    Great stuff, man!

  2. An excellent analysis. I like your observation that the ferry emerging from the fog alludes to King Kong. Also, you refer to the dramatic musical score, and if you remember from my post, I found the grand entrance through the gates of the asylum to be one of the best moments in the film. Also, the massacre scene, which you analyze well. Also, the images you post here make me wonder why I didn't enjoy the film more than I did. I mean, I admired the construction of this film with all its visual embellishment, but I felt it dragged on too long and it had an ending that involved too many words of explanation - and I was disappointed with the explanation.

    Now, this is a total non sequitur, but I noticed the picture you have here for "Blog Awards" - "You are a great read!" - and I noticed the book that the rather attractive librarian has dropped. Looking closer I realized it's Spirit Lake, an epic novel by MacKinlay Kantor, and I've read it, and it's one of my favorite books. I know this is a weird observation, but I just had to say it.

  3. Good thoughts here -- I haven't made the rounds on the rest of the blogosphere's views yet, so I'm not fully aware of the debate out there on this film.

    I quite like that Scorsese played it straight, for the most part, and didn't employ the Shyamalan-like twists (which I guess I was expecting).

    As you point out, the most off-putting thing about the whole endeavor is that the marketing was extremely misleading as to the type of film this was. I was expecting something over-the-top and a bit crazy ala CAPE FEAR (which it had moments of), I got closer to A BEAUTIFUL MIND as filtered through Scorsese.

    But whatever, as you point out, it's the craft involved that makes me enjoy the film. I hadn't thought about the projected backgrounds in such a manner as you point out -- that's deep man -- but saw allusions to plenty of great cinema touchpoints. Much like watching a Tarantino film, Scorsese allows us to take a journey with him through his lifetime of film watching/study/enjoyment.

    As for the guilt aspect, I thought the whole VERTIGO allusion played well into that (as you state, it is a pretty obvious homage). I immediately was comparing Teddy to Scottie and looking at the connections between the two characters (and someone has covered this already, right? Because that could take some time, comparing the two. We weren't the only ones who noticed?). Even without that, the guilt aspect was played up extremely well through the flashbacks to his wife and his wartime experiences. Scorsese builds up sympathy for Teddy where at the end we don't want to believe that he's the crazy one -- we want him to be on some righteous journey to expose some terribly conspiracy.

    And beyond all this, I'll just have to write my own blogpost, instead of trying to hijack your comment section.

    Oh, one last thing. I like this format you did here (I notice you did it for INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS as well). It's a great way of getting your thoughts out without having to hit just the big points of the film. I may have to try it.

  4. Kevin, I am frantically trying to get through the prep of the MMD now, but I couldn't ignore this great essay, which is also informed with a number of superb critical excerpts. But above all, we are on the same page with this one. I have been frustrated with some negative appraisals in some corners of the blogosphere, but you really frame this film marvelously and accentuate its strengths, which of course are it's exquisite set pieces in those unforgettable places (i.e. the lighthouse, cave, study, cafeteria, cemetery burial vault) and it's marvelous use of weather as something that externalizes the action.


  5. David:

    Thanks for the kind words. I loved your review, too! Thanks for stopping by.

  6. Hokahey:

    Thanks for the comment! I think I stupidly omitted your review in those links. I apologize. Your thoughts on the film didn't necessarily mirror mine, but your argument against the film (especially on the length of the film, which we agree on, but bothered me less than you) is more than valid. I do remember you talking about the music. It was so wonderfully campy...again fitting nicely with the noir tropes that play out in Teddy's imagination.

    Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words!

  7. Troy:

    Hurry up and write your post. We agree on a lot of things, which we discussed at breakfast yesterday, but I'll say it again based in your great comment here: you're right-on. The film is an experience, and even though it's not the one I thought I was paying ended up being something that I hadn't seen from Scorsese in a little over 10 years.

  8. Sam:

    Thanks for the link on the MMD. I appreciate it. I'm glad you loved the movie, too, it's certainly the deepest film of Scorsese's recent output. Dante Feretti's exquisite set design -- which you wonderfully inventory in your comment -- is one of the stand-out aspects of the film. I also like what you say about the weather, and I love how Scorsese makes it a point (yeah it's obvious, but whatever) to show how serene the weather on the island is as Teddy arrives (a cloud is coming when they're arriving) and when he "leaves" (that closing shot is great)...suggesting what you're getting at with your comment about the storm.

    Thanks again for the link and for stopping by here, Sam. I appreciate always!

  9. Kevin,
    a great review and I am on board with how good this film is. Scorsese pulled out all the stops and had a lot of fun with this yet as you mention it still contained some of his regular themes like guilt.

  10. Thanks for the link, Kevin. I like how you've reviewed the film. Strong, specific analysis. Good stuff.

    You've probably seen it by now, but Emerson unearthed some Scorsese footage and accompanied it with screen shots in a way that underlines your points about how Shutter Island plays with genre and form.

    I'm kind of talked out on the film in general, having posted thoughts all over the place, but I did want to respond to the Kenny quote above: "it's a chronicle of a man who simply cannot stop hurting himself, cutting himself open."

    Alas, that's not what it's a chronicle of. At least it's not a chronicle of that until Scorsese drops the whole mystery nonsense. On the other hand, the latter half of Vertigo totally fits Kenny's description.

    I was on to the mystery early, but the mystery proves so empty that it's an unnecessary distraction. To me the best example is the Patricia Clarkson scene. Does that reveal a man cutting himself open, or is that a needlessly long scene that misdirects us toward the mystery?

    As I've said elsewhere, I find myself defending the movie to doubters and picking it apart when I come across believers. On the whole, I enjoyed the movie, and I think a second viewing -- when I can ignore the mystery altogether -- might make me like it even more. But Kenny's quote above bugs me because it implies that we go through the film with the understanding that we have at the end. And we don't.

    As I'm typing this, I see the image of Teddy with his arms wrapped around his wife as she drifts away. What a terrific image! But it means so much more to me now, now that I know. Isn't it a problem when a still of the movie after the fact has more weight than the film itself on first run? Is anything really gained from the mystery? On the whole, isn't the mystery a net loss?

    Anyway, this has turned into a ramble. It's an interesting picture to discuss; I love it for that. I'd been saving your review for when I had time to digest it. Good read.

  11. John:

    Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you liked the film, too.

  12. Jason:

    Thanks for the kind words. I like doing reviews this way when I'm trying to hammer out a post, and then I take these thoughts and make it more conventional. But I think I might start using this template more as it cuts though a lot of the stuff I don't like in traditional reviews and allows me to talk more at length on the things that interested me.

    I did see the Emerson entry. It made me think of the time when Scorsese was on Ebert's show doing 'The Best Films of the 90's' and they were talking about Eyes Wide Shut and how all of the critics and audience members were wrong by trying to hold that film to some kind of realistic standard (i.e. "I can see British street signs in what is supposed to be New York!")...the clip is on Youtube, and it speaks to what Scorsese does with a lot of his films. I liked Jim's title for his post: 'Artifice and truth'...very apt.

    As for how you felt about the Patricia Clarkson scene...well...I took be to the final straw where he is trying to link all of these un-linkable things together. I don't think it's a mistake that the scene is preceded by the moment where "Teddy" is on the edge of a cliff...another obvious but appropriate metaphor. I do agree that the scene dragged too long.

    One of the things that I think Scorsese did really well was lay off the groan-inducing metaphors (although the storm could qualify)which were abundant in his previous film The Departed (especially that horrible final shot).

    I don't know if it's a problem that the image above has more weight after the fact. I found the scene pretty emotional to begin with, and when I figured out was going on, and Scorsese did his Vertigo thing at the end then I just found that moment -- and all the other flashbacks -- to be heartbreaking. Perhaps I'm being too easy on him and not thinking enough about the story...I guess we'll see because I know I am going to see this again.

    Thanks for your ramblings. It's always great to have you stop by and leave your thoughts.

  13. "I know I am going to see this again."

    And I predict you'll like it even better. I don't know if you (and others) are being "too easy" on Scorsese. In my debates about this film, I realize I'm getting all too close to suggesting there are certain rules that must be followed -- that is, that if Scorsese follows the Vertigo model in one way that he should follow it completely. That's not my goal.

    Thus far, however, while I've seen the mystery justified and defended in many interesting and legitimate ways, I've yet to have someone build the case that the movie is actually better because of all the effort it spends kinda-sorta hiding things. Likewise, I've yet to find an argument that convinces me that the movie would lose anything -- in fact, I think it would gain a lot -- by letting the cat out of the bag much earlier.

    So to that degree, yes, I think Scorsese is getting a bit of the kid gloves treatment. But he's certainly made an interesting film that is at times quite moving. I just can't escape my feeling that it could have so easily been more interesting and more compelling, just by nixing the mystery drama.

    OK, I'm done rambling.

  14. Thanks for the shout-out, Kevin!

    This is well-written, enthusiastic review. Like Jason, I'm a little talked out on the film now, but it's great to see more cogent commentary emerging as time goes on.

  15. Jason:

    I don't want it to seem like I don't understand what you're saying in regards to the mystery plot. I actually agree with you. The purpose of my post was to focus on what I loved about the film and how for my experience the problematic storytelling didn't bother my ultimate outlook on the film.

    I agree that a more linear story or something that doesn't rely on flashbacks without us knowing the context (beyond he was in the war and he lost his wife in a "fire") would be vastly more affecting and cinematically the equivalent to something like Vertigo (plus it would have made the whole "he's the insane one" twist less of a big revelation and more of a sad and dark admission.)

    However, for some reason those problems weren't big enough to derail my enthusiasm for the film. I do find it odd though that Schoonmaker, an almost always reliable editor, couldn't convince Marty to cut this thing differently.

  16. Andrew:

    Your review was one of my favorites. No prob on the link. Thanks for stopping and commenting.