Monday, February 21, 2011

Shuttered Rooms

This concludes my participation in the Film Preservation Blogathon: For the Love of Film (Noir). This is a fundraiser, folks, so send a few bucks to this link. Proceeds benefit the Film Noir Foundation and will help fund the restoration of The Sound of Fury (1950).

Let's get this out of the way first. Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island (2010) is ridiculous. Now, I knew that going in. I listened to an audiobook version of Dennis Lehane's novel a couple of years ago. Others who are not so forearmed may feel a little pissed off when they get to the end of the movie.

Here's what happens in the movie: US Marshalls Teddy Daniels and his new partner, Chuck Aule, have been summoned to Shutter Island, a psychatric compound off the coast of Massachusetts that houses the dangrously, criminally insane. One of their patients, a woman who drowned her children, has mysteriously escaped from her cell and cannot be found. Once there, they run into obstruction at every turn from the sinister administrator of the island, Dr. John Cawley. The hospital, it seems has secrets. Daniels, too, has secrets. He's a veteran of the war, in which he was present at the liberation of Dachau. It haunts his dreams, waking and otherwise. His ulterior motive for taking the case is to confront the man who set the fire that burned his wife to death. His wife haunts his dreams, too. Getting anything done is a challenge, however, as the island has been isolated from the world by a raging hurricane.

This is NOT a movie about its plot, which is good, because the plot takes a turn into the absurd late in the movie and never looks back. This is one of those movies that provides clues as to its true nature all through its running time, and it's a fairly transparent movie once the audience has time to think about it. Scorsese doesn't let the audience think about it. He employs his considerable cinematic gifts to disguise his intentions. Whatever one thinks about this movie as a story, its bona fides as cinema are impecable. As I say: this movie is not about its plot. It is, instead, an epistemological film noir delirium intended to catalog the horrors of the post-War world. These horrors are at the roots of film noir, and Scorsese obliges them by constructing a vast showcase for each of them in turn. This is a movie about death camps and the A-bomb, about governments that experiment on their people, about psychiatric hospitals used as political gulags. This is, ultimately, the ravings of a psychotic conspiracy theorist rendered as a thriller. Whatever else it is, it's certainly fun to watch.

If there's a dominant theme in this movie, it's the annihilation of self. No one in this movie is who they pretend to be. The way this movie goes about puzzling out who's real and who's not is worthy of Philip K. Dick, who would have recognized both the shaky nature of the film's reality and the drab menace of mid-century America. Teddy Daniels is another film noir detective on the downward spiral, whose pursuit of an inscrutable mystery acts as psychoanalysis. He doesn't like what he finds at the end. Like most Scorsese movies, this has a lot of cinematic antecedents; the movie it reminds me of most strongly is Angel Heart and like that movie, Shutter Island works as a horror movie for big chunks of its running time; the director cops to this in one of its opening images, in which we first see the title location framed like the island in Val Lewton's Isle of the Dead.

Scorsese can get whatever collaborators he wants these days. This is the fourth movie he's made with Leonardo DiCaprio, who is good in the lead even if his performance echoes the one he gave for the director in The Departed. Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Max Von Sydow, Emily Mortimer, and (especially) Michelle Williams are all terrific actors in support. Scorsese regulars Thelma Schoonmaker, Robert Richardson, and Dante Ferretti, are at the top of their game behind the camera, too. As a formal object, Shutter Island is beautiful. I say at the outset, it's ridiculous. I don't know that this is a fatal flaw, but it's a flaw none the less, because the ending is what pushes the film into the realm of the absurd, and it's the ending that leaves the last impression for anyone who sees the movie. Rug-pulling movies run a serious risk of demolishing their narratives in the end, and I'm not so sure that Shutter Island avoids this fate. This is probably hypocritical of me, though. This is a movie that's firmly in the film noir camp and on their surface, many films noir that I love unreservedly are ridiculous on their face. Shutter Island is so lovingly made that I AM inclined to give it a pass for this. But it still gnaws at me. I want to love this. I do. Maybe someday, I will.


Mykal said...

Dr. Morbius: Something about the ending left me flat as a pancake. I've never been able to decide exactly what, but if was wildly unsatisfying and, yes, I did feel cheated somehow. Maybe it was the way things were wrapped up quickly, or maybe the fact that interesting characters were sort of left washed up, pale and boring in the final scenes, with nothing really to do (Ben Kingsley).

Since you have taken pains in your post not to give spoilers, I will follow suit and not say too plainly what my problem was with the ending. I'll just say where the movie seemed to be going was so much more interesting than where it went.

Good post, per usual.

Marilyn Ferdinand said...

I think this film is a wonderful hoot of a horror movie. I understand your link to noir, and I think it's correct. But trying to understand why so many people would go to so much trouble to get this one man to come out of his delusion is stretching things. Nonetheless, he's an experiment every bit as much as other people were experimented on, so ultimately, I don't find it ridiculous.

Thanks so much for your wonderful essays all week! We really appreciate them and you!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Mykal. I kind of agree with you about Ben Kingsley. His character was so sinister early on and so banal in the end. He turns into the Simon Oakland character at the end of Psycho! It was disappointing.

Hi, Marilyn! Thanks! I wouldn't have missed this for the world. I'm down with Shutter Island as a horror movie. That's how it was sold, and, by golly, it's the biggest Old Dark House horror movie I've ever seen. Maybe "ridiculous" is the wrong word. It follows a kind of nightmare logic. Nightmares don't have to make sense.

Jaye Schmus said...

I wanted to see this movie as soon as I heard about it. A poster informed me it was based on a novel by Dennis Lehane. I like Dennis Lehane, and one of his books made another good movie (Mystic River). I bought a copy of the book at the airport in ATL on my way to Tallahassee. It was great, until the end. I felt betrayed, like I'd been sold a bill of goods. Like you say, the film is good, but I hated the story.

cgeye said...

When someone wastes a perfectly-dog-bitin' perf from Ted Levine -- even though, yes, I *know* his character's arc was limited from the book, on -- when you ask me to turn away from his blazing scenery-incinerating light to spend a quiet nap with DiCaprio? You lose me, plain and simple. I *did* take a nap during the cave scene, 'cause once I knew the secret (from reading the book), I should care? Why?

Other than the soundtrack and the character actors chewing the remaining scenery, I don't recall anything of worth about the film, except its own Lewton-biting.

theoncominghope said...

This is one of the rare movies where the ending made me want to hate the movie, and yet the rest is so good!

Will Errickson said...

I really thought the book was mostly terrible, like it was an early novel Lehane had languishing in a drawer somewhere, and then he became a bestselling author and his publisher needed more product from him. The only reason I read it was b/c of the Scorsese adaptation, and then it was another year before the movie actually came out. The movie looks wonderful but I was so put off by the book I was only half paying attention to it.