5 cups of coffee: A Fevered Review of “Shutter Island”

Max Reviews: “Shutter Island” – 1.5 stars out of four.

I have caught a lot of flack lately for some ill-advisedly dismissive Facebook statuses in regard to Martin Scorsese’s latest offering, which I will admit were designed simply to provoke reactions from what I thought (correctly) would be the hoards of supporters. And while I do admit to being a troll in my succinct kiss-off, I simply cannot tolerate being dismissed as any sort of contrarian or film-school snob (my actual film-school snobs would take offense to this – I was the one who loved “Avatar” after all). So I thought I would take a moment to clarify what exactly it was I did not like about “Shutter Island”, and hopefully inspire some spirited discussions this time instead of the juvenile name-calling that arose upon the first go-around.

I will say, however, that in some ways my original review was, in form and function, exactly what a movie like “Shutter Island” deserves; for both the film and my original review eschewed subtlety and intellectuality in favor of pure visceral reactions. From the opening scene, pictured above, in which an already haggard Leo DiCaprio splashes water in his face as he tries to PULL HIMSELF TOGETHER, to the opening credits, with a hilariously overbearing gothic score underscoring such tense moments as THE GATES OPENING(!) and TREES(!!), the disastrous tone of this film was evident right from the outset. Scorsese, who has copped more than one shot (albeit with respect and affection) from Hitchcock over the years, should have studied The Master a little more; Hitch knew not to give away his hand so early. The key to great psychological thrillers is the normalcy with which they proceed until that precise moment when they do not. With this one the opening is pitched to the rafters, and thus there is nowhere to go and nothing to build towards.

The film follows Teddy Daniels, played by DiCaprio in a performance that recycles not only his Boston accent from “The Departed”**, but also his frenzied hysterics (much more effective in the earlier film), a U.S. marshall who is investigating the disappearance of a woman from the insane asylum housed on the titular isle. Upon arrival, he finds no shortage of strange happenings: crazy-eyed old lady gardeners (really?), an ominous forbidden wing of the hospital, and a general lack of co-operation from everybody he tries to interrogate. Indeed, “it’s like they’re scared of something”, Teddy observes, a rather obvious conclusion which Teddy intones with the weight of the world. This, like many other ‘big’ moments in the film (but what moments are small, really?), including another “comes the dawn”-type statement from co-star Ruffalo (sadly adrift), looked great in the trailer, but fall flat here. It’s just all piled on too thick. The latter statement from Ruffalo, as Teddy’s new partner who may have his own secret motives (*insert ominous laughter here*…), takes place in an abandoned chapel just before the door blows open IN THE MIDDLE OF A FUCKING HURRICANE. This is schlocky stuff.

And it might have worked, were it not so self-consciously serious. Instead of inviting us in with a light touch of humor or some humanity, Scorsese keeps us at a firm distance, even as…

SPOILERS FROM HEREON IN

…the film is told from the unreliable perspective of our insane protagonist. That there is something just not right about Teddy is, again, pretty fucking obvious. Maybe it’s all those fantasies/memories about stacked bodies at nazi death camps, or creepy-ass dreams in which his wife dissolves into ash in his arms, but there was something downright unsatisfying with the big reveal at the end being that Teddy is fucking nuts. But before we get to that, let’s talk about those fantasies for a moment.

What the hell was Scorsese thinking? Not only are these death camp sequences borderline offensive, but they serve zero purpose in the arc of the story, other than as a red herring as to why Teddy is so messed up. By the end of the movie, it is revealed that Teddy has concocted this elaborate fantasy about being a marshall investigating a missing patient to protect himself from the harrowing truth that he is in fact a patient at the hospital, having murdered his (also crazy) wife after she drowned their kids because…I dunno, cause she’s crazy, I guess! The film provides no compelling or convincing psychology behind most of these events, but then it doesn’t really seem to be trying all that hard. These scenes are presented in typically over-the-top (the film is nothing if not consistent!), ugly, over-saturated visuals, with Leo and Michelle Williams (with precious little to do) seemingly auditioning for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”.

So why exploit the Holocaust just for the sake of heebie jeebies? It’s a pretty major faux-pas in a movie that seems to have been concocted by throwing everything at the screen and hoping some of it would stick. Unfortunately, almost nothing does. There is little emotional involvement in our stupendously flawed protagonist’s quest to find the truth about what’s really going on, and that leads pretty quickly to little interest. The film becomes more and more incomprehensible as Teddy goes deeper down the rabbit hole, with the film leaning pretty heavily upon its conclusion to pull all the strands together. And when it comes, it is not so much a cheat as a bore.

How many times have we seen this before? This is the best they have, that the entire staff of this facility which deals with the criminally insane, hardly a type you want to leave to their own devices, is bending over backwards to indulge this one patient’s delusion? We find all this out in a long expository speech from Ben Kingsley (acquitting himself nicely, as usual) that reminds us of that old adage about how movies really ought to show and not tell. The film up to that point has been so ludicrously overplayed that for it to end in monologue is just unimaginative. Why not have Leo discovered a big red button in that lighthouse, which he pressed and in turn cause THE WHOLE WORLD TO EXPLODE. Now that wouldn’t have been boring, would have been the logical progression in spirit with the film’s tone and certainly would have been ballsier. We have just come to expect better from Scorsese.

I’ll let this one slide. He’s made so many great movies, he’s allowed some gaffes. I’ll be awaiting the next one with excitement, as always.

** I promised Myself I would try to avoid statements that every other critic seems to have made…but fuck that guy. Am I right?

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