Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Shutter Island

"You're a rat in a maze," hisses Jackie Earle Haley, now Hollywood's go-to character actor when you need someone to garble their dialogue and look like a freak for ten minutes. I'm not sure if what he means is that Leonardo DiCaprio's Bostonian Fed-uh-ruhl Mahh-shull is the victim of a scientific experiment or if he's just going to end up with a lot of cheese.

Haley's George Noyce and DiCaprio's Teddy Daniels are meeting (in Haley's only scene) on opposite sides of a rusty grid of bars that hold Noyce prisoner on Shutter Island, a labyrinthine mental hospital - equal parts Overlook Hotel and Shawshank Prison - that gives its name to Martin Scorsese's new prestige horror film. Daniels has been called in to investigate the disappearance of one of Shutter Island's patients (Ben Kingsley's Dr. Cawley prefers they not be referred to as prisoners), a homicidal woman named Rachel Solando who vanished overnight from within her locked, guarded cell.

From the start, it's apparent that nothing is as it seems and everyone involved may or may not be lying.

And just in case the thundering hurricane, the creepy deranged inmates and the menacing heartbeat of the "modern classical" song score aren't signifiers enough that something will be hitting the fan in a big way, there's a whole convoluted ensemble of terrific actors cast as inessential characters whose only purpose is to deliver expository jargon as a means to an ending.

There are two cops in charge (a warden and a deputy warden), two head psychiatrists, two terrifying inmates from Daniels' past. Daniels brought a partner along making two Marshalls to bandy theories back and forth, and he also brought along the baggage from two separate traumas. There are even two Rachel Solando's1, and when the big twist comes out, it gets explained twice, not counting the trailer or the first twenty minutes of the feature, during which you might've already figured things out on your own.

So let's have a quick talk about the economy of a story.

Picture Laeta Kalogridis, the crack typist who wrote Oliver Stone's Alexander, at his computer working up his screenplay adaptation of Dennis Lehane's mystery novel Shutter Island. In blocking out his story, he's so far stuck to the book pretty faithfully, but remember that the word for what he's creating is "adaptation". In my dictionary under "adapt", I could show him another word: "modify."

A smart writer would've taken most - if not all - of those doubles and cut one half of them right out. This story is an unwieldy mess. When it's time to deliver exposition, you can practically smell the toner of the Xerox machine Kalogridis must've used to transfer novel to film.

If you haven't already figured out the twist by the time Shutter Island reaches its climax, don't worry. Not only will Ben Kingsley explain everything that you've seen beat by beat (he even has a dry erase board with I-swear-to-God anagrams), once he's finished there's going to be a handy ten-minute flashback to show you the finished puzzle Kingsley has just described.

During this climax as well as several other expository stretches, as the story ground to a halt for ten or so minutes, I found myself wondering what it might've been that attracted Scorsese to this project in the first place.

Because the fact is: I'm of two minds about Shutter Island. For all its flaws the movie is an aesthetic marvel, with several flat-out gorgeous dream sequences and the kind of lush photography and production design you only get to sink your teeth into on the too-rare occasion that a master filmmaker such as Scorsese deigns to make a lowly genre film. Reteaming with occasional cinematographer Robert Richardson and perennial editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese crafts a film that, even as each hint to the final twist drops to the floor with a thunk, is sporadically absorbing and often a good deal of fun. Occasionally, the film even manages to mine a sense of dread and a hint of terror. I might add that the girl behind me in the theater would disagree that the film is frightening only on occasion; it was clearly working for her, as every drop of blood and unlit corner elicited a shriek.

Clearly, Scorsese's interest in this puzzle lies in the pieces rather than the finally assembled picture, which is beneath him, you and me. I almost believe he selected the project simply to have some fun; the tricks he employs in the name of a straight-up horror are many. There are reverse shots, brooding negative space, a surprising amount of CGI and even a good old fashion jump scare. Did he simply feel the need to get this stuff out of his system in an appropriate story? It's a terrible storm to weather for the characters and a two-and-a-half-hour psychodrama for us, but for Scorsese it almost feels like a day at the beach.

1.) So you don't have to click over to the IMDb, here are the actors who play all these characters: Ted Levine and John Carroll Lynch as the warden and deputy, Kingsley and Max von Sydow as the shrinks, Haley and Elias Koteas as the creepy dudes, Patricia Clarkson and Emily Mortimer as Rachel Solando and Mark Ruffalo as the partner. With the exception of Kingsley and Ruffalo, all of them are given one or two scenes only and nothing to do.[back]

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!


  1. Some thoughts/reactions.

    "Here's a whole convoluted ensemble of terrific actors cast as inessential characters whose only purpose is to deliver expository jargon as a means to an ending."

    Do you find it distracting that these parts are played by good, recognizable faces? Or do you simply feel their talents are wasted? Because I'd argue that Haley and Clarkson, for example, both knock their single scenes out of the park. Expository or not, these moments have a spark of life that only "terrific actors" can provide. I was GRATEFUL for their presence.

    "This story is an unwieldy mess."

    Quite to the contrary, I'd argue that it's tidy to a fault. Were you ever lost or confused? If anything, I wish it were a little *more* unwieldy, that the lines separating its flashbacks and dream sequences and hallucinations were a little less solid-line.

    "Clearly, Scorsese's interest in this puzzle lies in the pieces rather than the finally assembled picture, which is beneath him, you and me."

    Speak for yourself. If but all "puzzles" had such elegantly carved "pieces"; craftsmanship this good, even if it is just for its own sake, is *always* worth our time. (It's not like we're living in an age of limitless aesthetic prowess--such formal mastery shouldn't ever be taken for granted.)

    You know, Hitchcock made a whole illustrious career out of set-piece machines, which is what SHUTTER ISLAND is. Was NORTH BY NORTHWEST *beneath* him? And this is hardly the first time Scorsese has employed his considerable gifts in service of a genre lark. The guy's never been a big thinker. His has always been a visceral cinema, one built on sentiment and visual invention, of which SHUTTER ISLAND has both in spades. When you buy into this notion that he's "slumming" here, you're ignoring a career full of genre excerises: THE KING OF COMEDY, AFTER HOURS, THE COLOR OF MONEY, CAPE FEAR, and (yes, Oscar validation and all) THE DEPARTED. To argue that an attention to the parts rather than the whole is "beneath" Scorsese is to essentially paint a picture of a canon that begins with TAXI DRIVER and ends with RAGING BULL--and to deny the "slices of cake" plenty of other Hollywood masters "lowered" themselves to produce. I call shenanigans.


  2. Ah, thank you, Alex. Speak for myself I shall.

    Don't get me wrong: as filmed, SHUTTER ISLAND would drop right down into intolerable were it not for the performances of all involved. And while Haley is, of course, getting very good at that one thing he does, I'm interested that you bring up poor Patricia Clarkson, who made me want to coin a term: wastedest.

    As for the unwieldiness of the story, I am referring to the length of time and the twists and turns it takes to get to its inevitable endgame (and I defy to you suggest a single achievement of the screenwriter to commend). Leo needs to get to the lighthouse so he goes to the lighthouse, but then he turns around and goes climbing and doesn't return to the lighthouse until the next day. It's just poorly blocked.

    And when I say Scorsese is slumming it, I am referring to *this specific script*. But since you mention it, SHUTTER ISLAND is just one in a long succession of Scorsese projects that have left me underwhelmed. I'm not sure the guy's fired on all cylinders since GOODFELLAS. Maybe BRINGING OUT THE DEAD. Maybe.