My feelings on this film have absolutely nothing to do with a lack of perceived film-making skill. Martin Scorsese guides us through the film rather deftly, with the assured hand of a master. Aside from the A+ sense of cinematography, the entire proceeding is laced with tension, atmosphere, and guile. Going in I thought this was going to be Scorsese’s horror movie, but after just the freaking the credits you KNOW this his out and out Hitchcock homage. The stamps are everywhere, including but certainly not limited to the central conceit of well… I guess what you could call a deep, dark conspiracy of sorts. So why didn’t I like the film so much? Especially with a litany of great performances and what might be perhaps the most steady editing and control of The Old Italian‘s brilliant career? Well I could tell you, but I’d have to spoil the entire freaking thing.
I think I’m going to do that.
If you haven’t seen it yet, turn away.
This is your last chance.
BEWARE OF UNCONSCIONABLY HUGE SPOILERS WHICH RUIN THE MOVIE. IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT YET TURN AWAY. IF YOU HAVE OR ARE ABSOLUTELY SURE YOU ARE NOT GOING TO SEE IT THEN YOU CAN CONTINUE.
The problem of SHUTTER ISLAND is that it ends up using a movie device that happens to be one of the lamest of the bunch. No matter how well this device can be done there is something so limp, ineffectual, and often unintellectual about its very nature. What I’m speaking of is what I guess you could call the “negating” device. It encompasses a wide range of things really, like: “multiple personality disorder” and “it’s all a dream!” or in the case of S.I., “it’s all constructed in main character’s mind!” I understand the impetus of the idea; you want to have the viewer/reader question their belief in “reality,” or for them to have access into the mind of a crazy person, or to make some meta statement about cinema and traditional narrative. But let’s be honest. So often the idea behind these devices is to simply provide a twist. The problem is this big WOW moment is so difficult to do within the context of your pre-constructed film’s “reality” that writer’s will just go outside of that “reality” to get that “wow” reaction from you.
Sure, you can pawn the device off and say its making some statment on personal responsiblity and the human mind’s ability to regress within itself. But isn’t that subject just as slick and meaningless as the storytelling itself? Really, what’s so interesting about that? If we’re going to get real, I’m pretty sure it’s not something that happens a lot with psychology patients. You hear about it all the time in movies, but there seems to be no airtight basis in reality. It’s a storytelling reality. And one that is all too familiar. All you’re doing with a reality-altering twist is taking someone on a ride and then undoing everything for the singular momentary thrill. The success of it is highly dependent on your saying something truly important with twist. Which rarely happens.
And believe when I say I am not a movie goer that cares about getting “gypped” out of traditional narratives. I’ve seen and liked more a-traditional narratives than most folks knew existed (like the entire Tarkovsky oeuvre). And popular film wise if you need an example, I love the ending for NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. The stark difference is the ending of NO COUNTRY is wonderfully poetic and full associative thematics and emotional moments. Sure, we don’t see the technical climax we wanted, but that’s incidental. We get something much more interesting. Meanwhile. the ending of S.I. is of one note interest: “he’s crazy and it’s all in his mind.” There really isn’t that much more to it. And if that’s the case then that’s a one trick pony if I’ve ever seen one. It’s a combination of psychology, pathos, and storytelling in hallmark card form. When you gyp someone you really have to earn their trust back with who, what, when, where, how, and why. And while S.I. at least takes the time with its last act to flesh it out (teetering on the point of boredom), it never delivers a satisfying logical or thematic explanation beyond the one note pop psychology.
Now you could suppose that S.I. is absolved of these criticisms, because Scorsese really was making a Hitchcock movie (which practically invented these devices as far as the movie going public is concerned) and does it damn well. And that earns S.I. a lot of leeway… A lot. I can’t convey enough how much I loved his 50’s esque stamp on the proceedings in terms of look, tone, and music. There’s a whole bunch of reviewers I love who don’t mind the last act because, well, what else would this kind of movie be? And there’s some merit to that. I know I shouldn’t be angry with what could just be obvious. But I really do expect something more substantial.
Because an audience;s sensibility to this kind of story was something that was effective almost 60 damn years ago. The film language has accelerated. We can take these sorts of stylings and update them into something more modern and interesting (think of films that took their genre and accelerated them into something more transcendent and exposing: L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS or even THE GOOD GERMAN). Scorsese’s interested in making great film out of what he has, but doesn’t care if what he has is nothing more than old trope. But doesn’t that it ring in the hollowness of the proceedings even more? It’s all going through the motions. A Hitchcock exercise. To me, it’s nothing more substantial than his beautiful hitchcock commercial.
So you could suppose that it all goes to the source material/script. I never read the book (you know, also called “Shutter Island”) but I have read a lot of Dennis Lehane and I typically like him a great deal. “Gone Baby Gone” is a really great book for example. I’m not sure what’s different about his version of S.I. so I can only go off the movie. But I think it’s somewhat safe to assume the same central device was used in the book. So if that’s the case I suppose you’re able to deflect more of it away from Scorsese and the writer of the film (who I’m too lazy to look up).
But really this sort of brings up the issue of “twist” film-making and storytelling in general.
I can remember that after opening weekend, my friend told me that THE SIXTH SENSE was awesome and we had to go see it together. I had seen one single advertisement that said “I See Dead People” and that it had a “whopper of an ending!” or something like that. So I go to see it with my friend he’s super excited that I’m seeing it and he thinks it’s going to knock my socks off. We watch the opening of the film and based on that I turn to my friend and say “so Bruce Willis is dead?” He was shocked. Actually no, he was more just pissed off. That’s part of the problem with many twists is that by inherently knowing a twist is coming you can usually figure it out based on a few key things. What you usually can’t figure out is the “how”. And that’s because so often Twist endings are dependent upon information that is only revealed to you after the fact. This is what I like to call “jerk-off bullshit.” Harsh phrasing and sometimes it is really okay and still allows for entertaining stuff… but the second you really think about it, that’s what it is. And Shutter Island has enough of that to make you crazy.
This is also exactly why I loved about Christopher Nolan’s THE PRESTIGE. It doesn’t pull a single punch. It’s wonderfully complex, but every single clue is laid out and if you follow them and listen, you can figure it out. Yes, I figured it out, but that’s more than okay. The thrill of the mystery isn’t being in the dark, but trailing it’s mystery with an intent eye. And with THE PRESTIGE it does that job so well that there actually aren’t any plot holes that can be filled with an epilogue. It’s a singularity.
Meanwhile I “figured out” SHUTTER ISLAND halfway through but not because the clues were laid out, but because it was entering that weird tone where they were allowing themselves the ability to go in stupid, nonsensical direction. Not in the delirious off the hinges way either. And looking back it doesn’t make sense or anything that any of what happened actually happened that way except to make the movie more entertaining. Hence, the “jerk off bullshit” designation.
Now there are also movies that do those kind of negating devices well. I’m not just talking about the Noir and Hitchcock movies, but modern movies. The most obvious comparison is FIGHT CLUB, which doesn’t execute the device all that well, but once it moves past the clunky logic it steeps itself into a meaningful analysis of maturity and what it takes not to be a self-serving nihilistic dingus (which sadly a lot of folks missed). I find it to be a thoroughly interesting subtext about our dual nature that is far less interested in its own twist (and its functionality), but much more interested in what its twist is saying. And that’s why it works like gangbusters. Another great “negating” device was used in MULLHOLLAND DRIVE, where it takes the “it was all a dream!” concept and not only buries it an finely, complexly constructed narrative, but steeps every single scene with thematic commentary about our id, desires, and dreams. I cannot think of another film that has taken us into the fractured mind of a “killer” in any better way. DRIVE is highly elusive at first, but it’s abstracts are nothing but concrete themes and story clues to the patient eye. It’s everything the story of SHUTTER ISLAND is not. Which is funny because in the end, both are really trying to say the same exact thing. Only DRIVE knows the reality and sobering quality of its endgame even better.
So honestly here’s the thing. The buildup of SHUTTER ISLAND is great in most every regard… and then it does a stupid movie trick. And it does it a lazy fashion that hardly justifies any of what we’ve seen, and what it happens to be saying with the stupid movie trick isn’t interesting enough to justify using it. The twist itself isn’t even good enough to qualify as a useless “mindfuck.” It’s just an old hitchcockian trope that has none of original impact it’s 50’s predecessors did. As far as personal taste goes, frankly I would rather have had the movie with the grand conspiracy and the the obvious downer ending… At least it would have been entertaining.