Sunday, February 21, 2010

Thoughts on Shutter Island

Here There Be Spoilers:

What I liked about this movie –

The grand dramatic entrance: Shutter Island opens as a ferry emerges from the fog, taking Federal Marshall Teddy Daniels to Shutter Island mental hospital. As he and his sidekick, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) are driven to the hospital’s imposing gates, the musical score is an ominous, dramatic theme heralding Teddy’s descent into hell. At first I felt the music was overblown, but as a dramatic moment it is one of the best in the film.

Out in the storm: Snooping around for clues to the whereabouts of a patient who has supposedly disappeared, Teddy and Chuck find themselves in heavy rain in a woods that starts to fall down around them. They take refuge in a crypt. Spooky, yes, and very dramatic.

Michelle Williams plays Teddy’s dead wife as a sultry beauty with a deep sadness about her. Her presence is wonderful, and the dreams in which she appears reminded me of the flashbacks to the soldier’s wife, played by Miranda Otto, in The Thin Red Line. As Otto is in Malick’s movie, Williams is hauntingly seductive.

Leonardo DiCaprio always delivers a solid performance. I love his intensity. I’ve read articles suggesting that Scorsese should end his partnership with DiCaprio. I disagree.

DiCaprio is supported by a wonderful cast. Ruffalo is perfect as the laid-back film noir sidekick, offsetting Teddy’s stronger emotions. If a film involves a cover-up, or a perceived cover-up, you can always find Max Von Sydow (as in Minority Report) – or Ben Kingsley – and this movie has both of them, and here both play doctors, a pair of Gothic horror Frankensteins in a sinister castle. Once again, Jackie Earle Haley shows his talent for playing an emaciated weirdo, and Elias Koteas provides horror with his ghastly, stitched face. I don’t know if this is intentional direction on Marty’s part, but Koteas looks and sounds like Robert De Niro playing one of his psycho roles.

Scorsese’s art direction and cinematography are always excellent. He knows how to evoke an ominous, threatening atmosphere with artistic lighting and atmospheric shots of corridors, doorways, and cells juxtaposed with the opulence of the doctors’ parlor and dining room.

The spiral stairway reminiscent of the stairway in Vertigo: In the same way Scottie (James Stewart) overcomes deep fears and ascends a twisting stairway to a revelation, Teddy climbs toward a revelation of similarly dramatic impact. I cringed from the tension and atmosphere, but I also cringed because I knew I was going to get pretty substantial proof regarding what is going on at Shutter Island – and I didn’t want the revelation to be what I had suspected since –

- The massacre at Dachau: I enjoyed the visceral effect of this surrealistic scene. I loved the shot from the point of view of the German prisoners as the shots approach them down the line. But it was here – and this scene comes rather early in the film – that I began to suspect that Teddy was possibly insane and deluding himself regarding the strange happenings on Shutter Island.

What I didn’t like about this movie –

The film loses tension as it moves along ponderously into too many mysteries. A little tightening would have maintained the suspense which starts to leak away as the storm goes on too long. In particular, the dream in which Teddy is embracing Dolores (Williams) in a shower of ashes goes on too long. It’s a wonderfully haunting image – but its length weakens its impact.

The big revelation that Teddy has been on the island all along as an inmate and that his investigation into the disappearance of an inmate and into his suspicions of some sort of pernicious cover-up of evil experimentation is all self-delusion: I knew this was coming since the Dachau massacre scene. The massacre happens in such an unrealistic way – a sparse rank of soldiers with M1s could hardly mow down a thick block of prisoners in such a methodical way. There was a shooting of unarmed German guards at Dachau, but it didn’t happen this way. Then, as other scenes seem surrealistic - the power of the storm, for example - my suspicions grew.

So as Teddy climbs the lighthouse stairway, I expected the whole "reality" of the film to be popped like a bubble. It’s my problem, I admit – my problem with how I perceive cinematic narrative. I guess I’m so geared to perceiving cinematic action as a story that is happening – unless it’s an obvious flashback, dream, or illusion. That most of what we saw is an illusion just feels like lazy plotting to me and a cheap twist ending.

As I said, I loved Teddy and Chuck’s grand, dramatic entrance – but when I discover at the end that this scene that I accepted as reality never happened, then the whole drama of the film is popped for me in the same way my conception of what is going is burst for me.

It’s also a disappointment to me when I see that a film has missed a greater dramatic potential. As Teddy climbs the stairway, I cringed from the established tension, but I also cringed, knowing that I was going to learn that Teddy is deluding himself. I actually uttered, “No, no, no, no!” But I was also suspended by the possibility of a much more dramatic twist: the doctors convince him to accept his insanity and then, resigned, he’s ready to be led away – but then he sees, and we, the audience, see it with him, some slip-up on the part of the doctors that indicates that he is not insane. That he is right. There is a cover-up of dastardly experiments.

Finally, we come to the last scene in which Teddy talks about whether it’s better to live as a monster or die as a good man. I initially took this as a possibility that the end can be taken ambiguously – that, indeed, there has been a cover-up, Teddy is not insane, and he realizes there’s no hope – he might as well get lobotomized. But I have Googled interpretations of this ending, and it’s pretty clear that there is no ambiguity.

But, okay, so he’s going to be taken off to get a lobotomy. Well, then, why would an orderly bring the instruments (the sharp pointy thing sticking out of the towel – this was not a syringe in case he needed to be sedated) out into the garden? Aren't the instruments ready for him in the operating room? I think I was sharp enough at that point that I didn’t need to be shown the instrument in order to conclude that they were going to scramble Teddy’s brains.


Simon said...

I think the ending was supposed to be up for interpratation, but not the part about the labotomy. That was never up for discussion.

Good review, cleared some things up for me.

Jason Bellamy said...

Hokahey. You must be a history teacher. Yes, the massacre happens in an unrealistic way. But wouldn't you say the never-ending storm of swirling papers in the office was even more unrealistic? It's a better clue.

Good comparison of the Williams scenes to the ones from The Thing Red Line.

As for Koteas: He's seemed De Niro-esque before, in Crash, for one. But he's especially De Niro-like here. Can't be an accident, and it made me miss the days when De Niro could make the hair on your arm stand up.

Good point about the lobotomy instruments. I was expecting a syringe or something, so when they opened up the towel, it took me a moment to figure out what I was looking at. In other words, by trying to be needlessly obvious about what was coming next, Scorsese managed to make me momentarily confused.

Richard Bellamy said...

Simon - Thanks. I'm glad I cleared some things up for you. But, please tell me - in what ways specifically is the ending up for interpretation?

Jason - Actually, I should have mentioned the papers. When I saw that image, I thought, "Okay, Marty, a bit excessive. I get the point." Then the massacre happened; then, in retrospect, the papers became part of the surrealism.

I guess these days one can get so used to over-staged shots that are intended as realism that it's hard to tell when a filmmaker is intending surrealism.

Actually, my wife just got home from seeing the movie. (We had fun discussing what was real and what was an illusion.) But she said, "Hey, was that Robert De Niro playing the scary guy with the scar?"
We both miss Bobby.

The Film Doctor said...

A nice summary of the pros and cons of the film. To add on to your points, I felt that Scorsese was straining for effect in places. The Lehane novel is good, but perhaps not worthy of all of Scorsese's efforts here. Shutter Island reminded me of Kubrick's The Shining in the way it tries to achieve something classic out of more cheesy source material. I agree, too, with you about the excessive length of the dream sequence. The source material could have used a lighter touch.

Still, Shutter Island looks like a fun place to visit. It's just very hard (12 Monkeys has the same problem) to convey insanity well in a movie.

Richard Bellamy said...

FilmDr - Thanks for the comments. "Shutter Island looks like a fun place to visit." I liked the very clear depiction of the island's layout: the dock, the gate, the neat hospital courtyard, the grip Civil War castle ward, the lighthouse. We know where we are at all times. The film definitely gets an A for art direction.

Insanity in film. Yes, a hard thing to portray. Food for someone's future post. What are some films that get it right?

Requiem for a Dream?
The Snake Pit (the looney-bin classic from the 50s?

Craig said...

Great write-up. It's amusing that you, Jason and myself all posted about this at almost exactly the same time.

For a moment, I thought Koteas was DeNiro. That would have been fun. Back in Angel Heart (a movie with a somewhat similar structure, incidentally), DeNiro has a cameo as a Satan who looks like Scorsese, so maybe it's a running gag of some kind.

Richard Bellamy said...

Yes, our reviews came out at the same time, right after Daniel's at Getafilm. I think we all had some strong feelings about the movie one way or another. For me it was disappointment because I just didn't want to accept the final plot cliche and the way it all works out.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Great stuff here. I pretty much agree with you on every point...although the ending didn't really bother me. I found the flashbacks to be pretty effective, too...even if the final flashback felt a bit tacked on, giving Leo his big "nooooo" moment. Great summary! I should have a post up on it soon.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comment - and I'll check out your post when you have it up. Yeah, Leo's big "Noooo!" moment. I happened to peek into a theater playing Shutter Island the other day and catch that very moment again - and it kind of plays awkwardly.

Unknown said...

I've just watched this - bit late on the ball I know, and am unconvinced about the ending being a dead cert...

I feel there are points in the final "revelation" scene atop the light house where phrases are used and converstation had where you think..."they could only know all that stuff had they been speaking with him for some time - we know as the audience, but they wouldn't as it was all in his head e.g. 'Hi Baby - why are you all wet?'".

However, there is almost a residing of acceptance at the end where he "goes off to be lobotamised" where I was honestly wondering if it would continue...e.g. Teddy allows it to take place in order to get insight into the "theatre of doom" that's been alluded to throughout the film.

Just my thoughts of course...

agree about the surrealism, often over done, the Ash scene, whilst beautiful, became a little lengthy...however, surely when we reminice for real don't our minds make a memories that little more surreal than they truly were - (or may be I'm just a little everyone else on this planet! XD)

Richard Bellamy said...

Raymond - Thanks for your thoughts. Your argument for the surrealism is a good one. In retrospect, the ash scene is a memorable one - very well done.

Thanks for reading!