Friday, March 5, 2010

Shutter Island (2010, Martin Scorsese)

The short version of this review is that Shutter Island would have been a much better movie had DiCaprio played a plumber on Sh*tter Island.

As it was, he and Scorsese have made nothing but a hoary mass of decades-old psychological thriller and ghost movie cliches which the critical establishment wouldn't consider praising for one second if not for their names. Particularly irksome is when a prestigious director like Scorsese deigns every few decades to condescendingly lower himself to the level of making a scary movie (his last was the Cape Fear remake in 1991) they set about the task by moving down a virtual checklist of the genre's current formulas, just as DeNiro's version of Robert Mitchum's Cape Fear villain became a near-unkillable slasher movie psycho by the end of that film. Whether this happens out of contempt for genre film audiences, a director's ignorance of the genre's pitfall cliches or some self-delusional arrogance that they can bring new life to the cliches of a genre that's normally beneath them, I have no idea.

There are two big clues in the first ten minutes that Scorsese is phoning it in. First, the soundtrack blares a collection of modern classical music, à la The Shining. In fact, that's even where one of the cues is re-used from. Second, the sinister head doctor of the island asylum is Ben Kingsley, who only turns up in sci-fi and horror movies like Species and Bloodrayne when they need a touch of class from a prestigious actor who isn't too proud.

About an hour later the cheese has reaches full pungency, in what I assume is supposed to be the film's scariest sequence: DiCaprio creeps down a dimly lit hallway by the light of a single match, is attacked by a crazy person who jumps from the shadows with an accompanying hit of loud music, and shortly thereafter has a conversation with another madman behind bars played by Jackie Earl Haley - the weird looking character actor flavor of the month and, by corollary, Michael Bay's choice for the new Freddy Krueger in his Nightmare On Elm Street remake. You don't have to have seen a lot of horror movies to be underwhelmed by this greatest hits compilation, even people who don't go to them have probably seen enough horror movie trailers to anticipate what's coming next. In fact, this sequence and every other halfway unsettling visual in the film was crammed into the trailer, giving the false impression that the complete film might have even spookier scenes in store. No, Shutter Island is one good two minute trailer wrapped inside a staggering two hours and eighteen minutes of tedium.

The only purpose this film might serve is in reaching the absolute nadir of the "it was all in the main character's head" twist ending, and urging a referendum on this scourge. Fight Club was a great movie. Unfortunately it's longest lasting influence has been ruining every other thriller in the past eleven years by successfully translating the novel's mindbender ending to the screen, demonstrating for every lazy hack the easiest way to surprise their audience at the end. The worst part is that there's no way to see it coming; Fight Club had to translate to film the literary technique of the unreliable narrator to retain the integrity of the story, hence the constant narration. In every hacky imitation of this twist, including Shutter Island, the protagonist simply goes about his business like any other main character in a movie, until suddenly it turns out he was crazy the whole time and the things you saw him seeing weren't real - sucker!

Scorsese had to at least heard of Fight Club, which must be why he chose to adapt a novel which piles on another layer of incredulousness in a vain attempt at differentiating itself: not only is Leo crazy and has been hallucinating things that we the audience had no way of knowing weren't real, everyone around him knew he was crazy and was only playing along in order to cure him. People should have been groaning and laughing at this contrived idiocy on the way out of the theater as if Leo had awoken from bed at the end and everything had been a dream, the dramatic effect is virtually the same. I can't imagine that many people who enjoyed the twist would even want to see the film again in the future just for the lifeless recitation of horror film formalities.

The story might have been alright clocking in as a 22 minute Twilight Zone episode instead of the unrestrained length of most films today. The pacing is screwed up long before the final surprises even begin to unfold, when at barely halfway through DiCaprio abruptly reveals to his partner that he's actually known what the island's deep dark secret is before they even arrived. You don't have to check your watch to know that there's enough movie left that this big revelation will be followed by at least one more. Worse, the most obvious guess as to what the final revelation will be doesn't even contradict the final final revelation that most of the film was all in Leo's head. Had they followed the initial revelation of the island's secret to some kind of conclusion it would have merely been trite, not insulting.

In a stunningly tasteless bid to lend some kind of emotional gravity to any of this treacle, DiCaprio's character has many flashbacks to murdered men, women and children he saw in a concentration camp, culminating in a revelatory flashback to the murder of his own children. The trailer did a fairly good job of obscuring that the film is set in the 1950s and I'm pretty sure that less people would have been interested if the MPAA had created a "Contains Intense Scenes of Holocaust Violence You Weren't Even Expecting" disclaimer. The effect resembles as much an emotional bear trap as much as the gotcha ending is an intellectual one - who the hell was expecting to see Leo liberating a vividly recreated Dachau when they got their ticket ripped for a fun night of being scared at the movies?

I'm beginning to give Tarantino more credit for leaving the Holocaust out of Inlgourious Basterds entirely. Who'd have thought Scorsese would be even less sensitive than the director of Death Proof, using the camps as a throwaway plot detail which in typical Hollywood fashion allows for one character to offhandedly compare the US government to the Nazis? As the camera lingers on the bodies of children for the third or fourth time it's all too clear Scorsese was beginning to feel guilty about how worthless this movie is and doubled down on abject sadness as the one response he'd be able to provoke with this generic material.

Years from now, cultural historians will realize that the true heir of the unreliable narrator device from the printed word was not film but video games. Stick with me for a minute here. Novels have greater access to the inner workings of a character's thoughts than films, which are unable to do so overtly without voiceover narration (or poor writing where characters walk around saying what's on their mind unsolicited, ie. The Dark Knight.) Video games do not employ voiceover narration, yet in games which take metaphysical plot twists such as the Silent Hill or Metal Gear Solid series, you the player have remained in control of your avatar's actions and are more likely to have feel you've accomplished something by having reached the denouement by your own efforts than if you've passively watched a story unfold only to be informed by the teller that none of it was real. This actually goes back as far as the second Super Mario Brothers game published in 1988, which ends by revealing that the whole game was all a dream. Mario's dream, even. Yet in video games this extreme turnabout has not yet become a hackneyed trend as it has in films, and the once exciting Martin Scorsese has incontrovertibly joined the ranks of the boring and predictable - by trying, ironically, to end his film unpredictably.

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