Friday, February 26, 2010
Pulled Wools & Gotcha Moments: Shutter Island
(WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS WILL BE DISCUSSED!!!)
Although obviously reminiscent of the films of Alfred Hitchcock, the film that Martin Scorsese's latest, "Shutter Island", reminds me most of is Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" due to my post-screening reaction to the film. It is not a secret that I consider both directors to be two of my filmmaking heroes. Yet, with "The Shining" and "Shutter Island", there is this inescapable feeling that both filmmakers are applying a considerable amount of spit and shine to material that is, how shall I put this, Grade C Junk. What makes both films seem desperate is that Scorsese and Kubrick work overtime to convince us (and, I believe, themselves) that they are not making B movies by artfully composing one superficially beautiful or clever shot after another that are ultimately devoid of much meaning or emotion.
Without trying to make this yet another commentary on the state of Scorsese's career in the last decade, I will say that "Shutter" contains some of the most beautiful imagery in any of his films since the under-appreciated "Kundun". The island and the asylum function as a playground for Scorsese to indulge in some of his most striking compositions with the help of the great Robert Richardson (who I thought seemed a bit handcuffed in his "Inglourious Basterds" camera work). I am grateful that this film gives Scorsese a chance to experiment with dream imagery, particularly one sequence between the main character and his late wife where he holds her close and she disintegrates into a pile of ash. For all the problems many have with this film, it is, without a doubt, a visually enthralling experience, not unlike "The Shining".
But like Kubrick's film, there are those nagging questions that come up when I sit and think about them for just a few minutes. My first question after "The Shining" was: Is there anything more to this film than a man making crazy faces and chasing his family around an empty hotel with an axe? However, if I want to refine that question and go a little deeper, I would then simply ponder if the film was anything more than a genre exercise that the director mounted beautifully without engaging my mind or heart in any significant way?
"Shutter Island" is the story of duly-appointed federal marshal Teddy Daniels (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (played by Mark Ruffalo) as they come to the Ashecliffe Asylum on the island to find an inmate, Rachel Solando, who disappeared mysteriously. Almost immediately, their investigation is stonewalled by the asylum's doctors, most notably Dr. Cawley (played by Ben Kingsley in the Ben Kingsley role) and Dr. Naehring (played by Max von Sydow in the Max von Sydow role). This is obviously what the trailer, which we all saw a few million times, has laid out as the narrative. Of course, knowing full well how the 21st century thriller functions, you can also assume that practically everything you see on the surface is not what it seems.
It turns out that Teddy is actually a patient at the asylum, who the doctors and the entire staff of the asylum are manipulating in an elaborate roleplay for him to accept reality. Teddy, traumatized by World War II when he helped liberate a concentration camp in Dachau, also happened to be married to a mentally unstable woman, Dolores (played by Michelle Williams), who snapped and drowned their three children one day. He actually was a federal marshal, but is still pretending to be one in an attempt to find his wife's murderer. But Teddy is the one who killed Dolores right after discovering what she did.
What may follow may seem harsh, as I can say I did not hate the film, but the reasons that prevented me from not caring a whole lot about it are recurring problems in many films, particularly in the last decade. As much as I have read many critics accuse Scorsese's "The Departed" of being a sell-out project where he provided a more commercially-acceptable version of his previous gangster sagas, I have to say that Scorsese's chasing of trends, particularly in "The Aviator" and now "Shutter Island" bothers me more. "The Aviator" contains some of his most impersonal filmmaking, a trendy by-the-numbers biopic with a CGI-aided glossy aesthetic housed in a self-important shell as Oscar bait that I could not honestly differentiate from the works of Ron Howard. It seemed like Scorsese wanted to convey the beauty of flying because he felt the audiences would lap up the ride, even if his direction demonstrated that he had no understanding of what that experience truly feels like. This was a grounded filmmaker trying to convince us that he had wings.
The trend that "Shutter Island" seems to be chasing is what I now call the Big Twist Narrative that seems to have plagued horror films and thrillers for the last ten years. The narratives often function as a series of twists, fakeouts and gotcha moments building to an ending designed to make you slap your head and proclaim "Holy crap! I didn't see that coming!" Who knew Rod Serling would become one of the most influential writers of our time? Most would obviously point to M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense" as the Ground Zero moment when filmmakers started making movies that resembled feature-length Twilight Zone episodes. I do believe that is a bit unfair, as I still consider both the Twist in "Sense" and the story that precedes it to still be justified as a narrative about human emotions. Besides, the emotional climax of that movie was always the final scene between main character Cole Sear and his mother in the car.
If there is a Shyamalan film that "Shutter Island" recalls, it is "The Village", the film where the Big Twist was completely unnecessary to supporting what the film's message was (which was actually a theme worth exploring however botched it was), but also, makes you backtrack and wonder how all the elaborate wool-pulling made any sense on a logical level. "The Village" could have pulled off the same theme if the characters had actually lived in the past, as opposed to the revelation they were in a secluded village in the present. The theme of using fear to keep people in line would not have suffered any less for it.
Another film that suffered from this was the French thriller "Tell No One", which ends with a laborious 15 minute explanation by one character that at first convinces you that it is laying down the facts, but then you discover that it contains even more needless wool-pulling. Half of David Mamet's most recent films never know when to stop toying with us. I would also add "Mystic River" and "Gone Baby Gone" (like "Shutter Island", they are based on novels by Dennis Lehane), which each contain several more narrative twists and coincidences and bits of trickery than is really necessary and often do not serve character or emotion. They almost feel designed to extend simple stories through plot mechanics in fear that the resolution may come about too quickly rather than justifying its plot through character development.
The problem I have with those movies and "Shutter Island" is that it often seems like the writers and the directors are more concerned with playing a game with my head than engaging me honestly. This is a movie that ultimately is about a man discovering that he went insane after his wife killed their children, which occurs after traumatic experiences during World War II. Does the movie do much to really explore any of those emotions? No, it instead puts the character on a creepy island and lets him run around it like a rat in a maze, just so that he can find out something every other character already knows about him. Much like "Gangs of New York" where I had wished the movie had been about the backstory of Bill the Butcher and Priest Vallon (as opposed to his uninteresting son's revenge against the Butcher while romancing a hooker on the side), I thought the true human horror to explore in this movie was the breakdown of the marriage between Teddy and his wife, where you would have had to guess which one of them was losing their minds. Then again, that movie was already made starring Leonardo DiCaprio: the unfairly-maligned "Revolutionary Road", which I always considered to be a movie about seemingly normal people who were actually dangerously self-delusional.
Once the twist of "Shutter Island" is revealed and explained in a presentation by Ben Kingsley (with the help of a white board and rivaling the one in "Tell No One" for sheer length), my mind starts to go back and try to see the movie from a new perspective to see if it makes sense. The trick with the Big Twist Narrative is that it is often revealed at the very end of the film in the hopes that you won't recognize how ridiculous it may actually be. In rare cases, such as "Vertigo" or "The Crying Game", the Big Twist is revealed halfway through the movie, forcing the characters to actually deal with the consequences of knowing more than they were supposed to know. That is interesting to me and elevates this level of storytelling to something beyond trying to mess with my head. Also, the revelation in "The Crying Game" was character-based and the plot in "Vertigo" was not as overly complicated as today's Big Twist Narratives.
In Scorsese's film, I am supposed to believe that the doctors stuck Teddy on a boat with his fake partner, who is actually his doctor, and had it circle back to the island, where they let him pretty much take control of the whole facility so that he can find his way out of his own delusions. Now, this may make for a more superficially "thrilling" narrative, but it makes me wonder if it is actually the doctors who are truly insane. Perhaps, there may have been a better form of therapy that did not include Teddy blowing up Dr. Cawley's car or knocking out a guard with the butt of a rifle. Even more odd is that the facility's staff seem to be world-class performers, living their roles 24/7 like the best of Hollywood's Method actors. Were there auditions to pick the nurse that plays the part of Rachel Solando with all the intensity of Gena Rowlands? I am surprised that no one picked up that the big secret of "Shutter Island" is that it is actually "The Truman Show" with mental patients as extras.
Do you see what I am getting at here about the Big Twist Narrative? When it is done functioning as a ruse, they often reveal themselves to be more than a bit absurd. I start imagining the meetings all the participants took to hatch such an elaborate plot and also consider them lucky that nearly everything fell into place to allow them to get away with such a ridiculous plan as long as they did. I have not read a Dennis Lehane novel, but, based on the three movies based on his work, he seems to never know when to quit with the narrative trickery which often comes at the expense of the serious subject matter. All three films deal with the deaths (or alleged deaths, thanks to Lehane yanking our chains even more in "Gone Baby Gone") of children, while paying only lip service to actually exploring the issue of violence acted upon a child.
In interviews, Scorsese has said the reason he made this film was Teddy's final line where he wonders whether it is better to "die a good man than live as a monster", which is definitely something I would have loved to see Scorsese make a movie about. Because I do not believe "Shutter Island" is actually about that. Like "The Shining", it is missing a directorial point of view about anything beyond cinematic style. Sure, the style and tone have a sure hand behind them, but, for me, movies need to be more than that.
I am put in the position of reviewing a movie that I believe is a first class effort with material that I believe is hackneyed. The cast assembled for this film is top-notch with nearly every performance hitting the right notes. Leonardo DiCaprio gets a bad rap for allegedly bringing down the quality of Scorsese's recent output, but except for "Gangs", I think these films truly showcase how much of a better actor he has become. His performance is touching and haunting throughout, peaking during the moment when he discovers the bodies of his children. It is so wrenching to watch you would think the movie earned that emotion. Michelle Williams does a great job playing a figment of his imagination. Mark Ruffalo is as reliably good as he always is, as is Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, John Carroll Lynch and a hilarious Ted Levine. Even though Ben Kingsley is playing the type of role he can phone in at this point, he seems to be playing the role with a slight wink to the audience, as if fully aware of his typecasting.
The production design, cinematography and choice of source music are effective in creating the mood of this film. These are many of the same compliments I would pay to "The Shining" as well. If I were to watch both "Shutter" and "Shining" with the dialogue track off and involvement in the story took second place to each film's visual pleasures, I would understand what each film's supporters get out of either film. Unfortunately, the unsettling moods of both films are undone by the silliness of their narratives, which I have a difficult time ignoring.
"Shutter Island" has the extra problem of being a product of its time, where the construction of the plot is more important than the sum of its themes. It becomes a series of parlor tricks that leads to a conclusion that is not as mind-blowing as the director or writer hoped. It feels like someone telling you they will pull a table cloth off without pulling off the dishes. They tug at the cloth just a little and then say they are going to do it for real this time. They then repeat this several more times, before flipping the entire table with the dishes crashing to the floor. Those dishes are the Big Twist.
I am one that always believed that everything in a film is manipulative to an extent, although the degree of manipulation one can get away with is dependent on the subject matter. I don't know about you, but perhaps the act of a mother drowning her children requires a narrative that tries to understand that act rather than make it be the final piece of a puzzle. When I see a great director like Martin Scorsese, whose previous films were not nearly as plot-oriented, take part in this narrative trickery, I begin to realize how unfulfilling these types of films mostly are. When I spend the entire running time of the film putting the puzzle together in my head while not caring all that much about the people at the center of the mystery, there is a problem. The film all but announces that there will be a big revelation at the end which makes watching it a bit of a slog, particularly when the middle of this film is edited as flabbily as it is. Once I guessed early on that Teddy's partner is the doctor that had left the island, I spent the time sitting there waiting for the movie to tell me that Teddy was actually a patient in the hospital even if the details about why still eluded me.
Watching "Shutter Island" became a matter of waiting for the final narrative whammy to be delivered because I was not that involved in what Teddy Daniels was doing in the present time of the narrative. It was all about solving the puzzle, when I thought most of Martin Scorsese's films were about anything but solutions to characters' problems and certainties about their psychologies. This is the man who ended "Taxi Driver" with Travis Bickle looking somewhat paranoid at his rearview mirror. "Goodfellas" ends with Henry Hill closing a door on our faces, unredeemed by turning state's evidence on his former friends because he loved being a gangster so much. Scorsese even left Jesus Christ and the Dalai Lama in states of flux, unknowing where their faith will take them next. In "Shutter Island", we are given the undeniable answer that Teddy was delusional and, despite the flimsy attempts at ambiguity, we are also sure that he will submit willingly to his lobotomy because he otherwise would not have said the line about dying a good man or living as a monster with such clarity. That idea is not supported by the film preceding it, as much as it is stated to give the plot a purpose it never actually earned.
Like most puzzle films, there is a solution or, at least, the need to meet audience expectations of wrapping the entire package in a little bow. It may be clever and polished with an undeniable professionalism, but what does it leave me to think about when I leave the theater?
Shutter Island was viewed at the Clearview Ziegfeld Theater.