Sunday, February 21, 2010

Losing Your Head (Shutter Island)

(Warning: major spoilers.)

For such a venerated director and film historian, Martin Scorsese is remarkably coy about his cinematic influences. It was only grudgingly acknowledged that his last feature, The Departed, was a by-the-book remake of the Hong Kong procedural Infernal Affairs (possibly because the latter is a better movie). Now, with Shutter Island, Scorsese's defenders -- Glenn "Don't Call Him 'Marty'" Kenny, et al. -- are bending over backwards with praise of the film's "movie-ness" at the expense of trivialities like genuine depth of feeling. Furthermore, nobody seems to realize that this story has been quite literally done before.

As with The Sixth Sense -- the last time I remember audiences smacking their noggins in astonishment over a climactic twist while I slumped in my seat resembling Joseph Cotten at the opera in Citizen Kane -- there's no way to critique Shutter Island or reveal its influences without giving away the game, so read no further if you don't want to be spoiled.

In partial fairness to Scorsese, Shutter Island is adapted from Dennis Lehane's 2003 novel of the same name, so the blame starts with Lehane. The protagonist, Boston federal marshal Teddy Daniels (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film), arrives at the titular island with his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the disappearance of a violent patient -- a war widow who drowned her three children -- from the mental institution located at an old military fortress atop a remote island. Daniels, himself battling demons from his tour in World War II, finds both patients and staff behaving oddly, particularly the head of the institution Dr. Crawley (Ben Kingsley). Eventually, Daniels learns that he himself is a patient on Shutter Island, traumatized not only from his war experiences but from killing his wife (Michelle Williams, appearing in dreams, hallucinations and flashbacks). It turns that she's the one who murdered their own children, and that Daniels, who actually was a federal marshal before his crack-up, is in a state of denial. The entire story turns out to be an elaborate bit of role-playing, staged by Dr. Crawley, in the hope of breaking through to Daniels. Crawley hopes that by pretending Daniels has the run of the place, letting him imagine himself a hero and solving the "mystery," that he'll heal himself in order to avoid the more common 1954-era treatments like lobotomy.

For the first half of the movie, I wondered why this story felt so familiar. Then, when Max von Sydow appeared as another psychiatrist on the island (looking 80 as he has for the last 40 years), something clicked: I thought of von Sydow; then The Exorcist; then William Peter Blatty; and finally Blatty's The Ninth Configuration. I've written about Blatty before, but to offer more details: his original 1966 novel Twinkle, Twinkle, 'Killer' Kane (eventually rewritten by the author in 1978, as Bill Ryan points out) was directed by Blatty himself in what became a cult 1980 movie called The Ninth Configuration. The protagonist, army psychiatrist Col. Vincent Kane (played by Stacy Keach in the film), arrives at a mental institution located at a remote castle in the Oregonian wilderness to treat its patients, all war veterans recovering from various traumas experienced during the Vietnam War. It is eventually learned that Kane, himself battling demons experienced in Vietnam, is a mental patient himself, brought to the institution by Col. Fell (Ed Flanders), who lets Kane act out the charade in a bit of role-playing, hoping that by pretending he has the run of the place, helping others and imagining himself a hero Kane will heal himself.

There are some differences. For starters, both Blatty's book and film are very funny. The Ninth Configuration is structured initially like a Catch-22-type absurdist farce, each of Kane's patients given distinct personalities. Eventually the focus narrows to one, Scott Wilson's troublemaker Cutshaw, also a veteran as well as a former astronaut who had a nervous breakdown prior to launch. ("There's nothing up there!") Kane and Cutshaw square off over theological arguments that are Blatty's bread-and-butter, and ultimately the movie closes on a fine line between the pretentious and the profound.

In contrast, Shutter Island feigns profundity as all of Lehane's novels do: by exploiting children (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, etc.). The screen version grimly follows with more of the same, grafting on to what is in essence a B-thriller not only familial tragedy but imagery from the Holocaust as well. (The latter appears for no other reason -- besides serving as a cheap red-herring -- than perhaps a means of fulfilling Scorsese's own bit of role-playing as the original director of Schindler's List.) As usual, Mark Ruffalo provides some shading to a thinly-written role; but Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley and others are wasted as other patients: they're plot points rather than personalities.

Yet the biggest difference in Shutter Island's strikingly similar premise is it's not any fun. Scorsese directs with mechanical precision, like a skilled magician growing bored with his own tricks. He's free of pretentions, unlike bogus faith-healer M. Night Shyamalan, whose own "originality" in The Sixth Sense was a crock to those who had seen Jacob's Ladder or read An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (i.e., hardly anyone). But no longer does Scorsese set any challenges for himself, the way Hitchcock did to keep from getting rusty: dutifully he goes through the motions of a plot that echoes not only The Ninth Configuration but also The Game and every other movie where Things Are Not As They Seem. Whereas The Departed was at least funny, Shutter Island takes itself with deadly seriousness. It's not as appalling as Scorsese's overheated Cape Fear remake, but easily his worst movie since.

And DiCaprio? It's always worth a laugh to see the hype machine's increasingly desperate efforts to compare his partnership-in-mediocrity with Scorsese (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island) to the zenith of De Niro's collaborations (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas, Casino). I don't dislike Leo. He's always likable, and truly in his element playing guileless shysters like Frank Abagnale, Jr. in Catch Me If You Can. DiCaprio is at his most effective when gliding along the surface of a story, less convincing when forced to dig for depth. The more out of depth he is, the more frenetic his performance becomes. In Shutter Island he looks like a drama student in a high school production of The Big Sleep, and in light of what we learn, Ruffalo's performance (praising Daniels' abilities as a detective, calling him "boss") is amusing in retrospect. DiCaprio telegraphs everything, however, without gradations. Even the harshest critics of this film are praising his emoting in the Climactic Revelation, but if you've heard one "Nooooooooooo!" you've heard them all.     


Craig said...

For a more favorable review on the whole, check out Jason's over at The Cooler.

Craig said...

And, somewhere in the middle, Hokahey's.

Jason Bellamy said...

Maybe if you've heard one "Noooo!" you've heard them all, but I was impressed by that whole scene -- both in terms of DiCaprio and Scorsese (and Williams, for that matter).

Interesting about The Ninth Configuration, which I admit I haven't even heard of.

As for the "not any fun" part. I wouldn't go that far, but that's in the same spirit of my criticism (in my review) that Scorsese makes a mistake in concealing the mystery Sixth Sense-style.

Which brings me to The Sixth Sense. There are a lot of reasons to bash M. Night Shyamalan (I've done it; and defended him), but I don't think it's for pretending that The Sixth Sense was "original." As far as I know, that's a reading that was thrust upon him. (But maybe that's what you're reacting to.)

Thinking a bit more about The Sixth Sense ... what I've always appreciated about that film, even though I think it's not "great," is that the surprise twist at the end isn't essential to one's enjoyment of the movie. If the story ends without the Bruce Willis revelation, the movie still works. You couldn't say that about Shutter Island, which, because of Scorsese's approach, is almost entirely about its mystery.

I was engaged enough in Shutter Island, but it sure has its problems.

Richard Bellamy said...

Craig - Thanks very much for the link.

And thanks for your well-written post. What a great revelation about The Ninth Configuration. I read the book a long time ago - but now the plot comes back to me. Also read your post on Blatty.

After reading your post, and thinking about it further, the whole elaborate role-play seems more and more contrived and far-fetched. Letting Teddy run around like that was a big risk! Teddy blows up a car and bashes a guard's head with an M1. The story would be easier for me to believe if it had been the diabolical cover-up of dastardly experimentation that Teddy says is going on there.

inessentials said...

I think Shutter Island works (or doesn't) as cinematic spectacle, and being too concerned with the film's source material is going to lead you astray. The scenes that work (approaching the island, meeting Jackie Earle Haley in Ward C, dream of Michelle Williams in an ash-strewn apartment) do so because they are built by a still-got-it craftsman who really knows how to frame and edit. The ones that don't (the showdown with the overrated Patricia Clarkson, the big reveal in the lighthouse) fail to work because they probe for some deeper emotional resonance from the dialogue, the acting, and the plotting.

In a film with a mixed bag of performances (I was unmoved by DiCaprio and Clarkson, tickled by Ruffalo, Mortimer, and Kingsley), the genuine depth of feeling that you yearned for from Shutter Island is to be found not in the acting or the hackneyed plot. (When DiCaprio pops the aspirin while Kingsley talks about the woman's complex hallucinations in which other inmates play roles, the gig was up for me.) Rather, allowing oneself trust both the director and the genre conventions allow one to be *thrilled* by the film. It may not be the most complex feeling that can be achieved by film, but it's a pretty great one when it happens.

The Film Doctor said...

Nice critique. I didn't know about The Ninth Configuration, but one could also bring up films going back to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (as Anne Petersen has done). I think my basic problem with the movie boiled down to plausibility. I couldn't buy that the psychiatrist allowed DiCaprio's character to indulge in his fantasies, blow up his car, and knock out a guard just to help him learn. I prefer the more sinister interpretation of asylum authorities in films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Craig said...

Thanks all for your comments.

To clarify one general thread of conversation, my point about "The Ninth Configuration" is more literary than cinematic. Yes, there are other films with superficially similar plots to "Shutter Island" ("Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," "Spellbound," etc.), but there are *a lot* of similarities between Lehane's premise and Blatty's, enough I think to warrant an explanation on Lehane's part.

That said, when I see a plot twist like the one in "Shutter Island" (or "The Sixth Sense") coming from a mile away, it does dampen my enjoyment of the movie. I guessed the twist to "The Usual Suspects" before the big reveal as well, but there were enough other things going on in that film that I loved it anyway. For me, "The Usual Suspects" has enough wit and energy and interesting characters and situations not to *depend* on the twist for its effects as desperately as "Shutter Island" does.

Turning over certain elements of "Shutter Island" in my mind, I can appreciate them (e.g., the "clue" Daniels finds under the tile in the room that seemed laughably obvious). I still find little of interest in the movie as a whole, though.

inessentials --

Rather, allowing oneself trust both the director and the genre conventions allow one to be *thrilled* by the film. It may not be the most complex feeling that can be achieved by film, but it's a pretty great one when it happens.

You're right, It is a great feeling. For me, though, that kind of trust usually happens from a filmmaker who actively engages me (which Scorsese has done before), not one who asks me to surrender. That's a big problem I have with auteurs in general -- whether it's Scorsese being mechanical ("Shutter Island"), Mann being opaque ("Public Enemies") or Spielberg being lazy ("Indiana Jones and the Whatever....").

Corey Wilde said...

As soon as I started reading your review, I thought, hm, Ninth Configuration, right? Right. NC was a fun movie as well as one that delved into the profound and was loaded with symbolism. Sounds like I can give SI a miss.

Fernando F. Croce said...

Spot-on review, Craig. Between the risible special-guest loonies, the BLAM-BLAM-BLAM soundtrack and DiCaprio's exhausting brow-furrowing, I'm afraid this one just further cements my feeling that Scorsese, for all the self-conscious passion, has become monumentally lazy. I used to worship the guy in my misspent youth, but the whole "It's Scorsese so it must be important" (non)critical attitude does art no favors.

And, damn it, I still need to see The Ninth Configuration.

Craig said...

Thanks, Fernando. Honestly, I wouldn't mind an outright lark from Scorsese at this point. (What was his last one...After Hours?) I'd go easier on Shutter Island if it were a B-movie without pretense. But if Marty's going to glop on Dachau and infanticide, then I expect him to actually say something about those things. Or cast a leading man who can.

Curious what you'll think of The Ninth Configuration. I wouldn't say it's "good," exactly, but it's damned memorable, with a great performance from Stacy Keach and a jaw-dropping barroom brawl set-piece that had to influenced Lynch on some level, its sheer weirdness soaring to eleven on a scale of ten.

Darren Emanuel said...

My friend and I both enjoyed the film and I commented afterward on the surface similarity to the plot of the little-known Blatty book/film. But what thrilled me while watching SI, during the cave scene, after which for a time I wasn't sure of either reality; Daniel's or the doctor's. It got me thinking about Foucault how sanity and versions of reality are tied to power. I think it was in Madness and Civilization.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I saw this yesterday and I have to say that I had the complete opposite reaction you did. Maybe I'm weird in that I don't care about twist endings that much. I went into the film thinking it was going to be nothing more than a genre exercise, and I was surprised by how much exposition there was. If the film commits any kind of crime it's that it overstays its welcome by about 20 minutes.

I thought the reveal was entertaining enough even if it was predictable...but I knew thematically it wasn't going to be one of Scorsese's deeper I just sat back and enjoyed it on a completely visceral level.

Oh, and Mark Ruffalo steals every scene away from Leo. He was great in this.

Great thoughts as usual, Craig. I liked what you said about "The Ninth Configuration" and "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Having only read the latter I see where you're coming from in regards to surprise-inversion films, but I've only seen the film version of Blatey's I can't comment on what you're saying there; although, you have me really intrigued and I think I'm going to see if my library has the novel.

Craig said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Kevin. I do agree that Shutter Island is too long, both in the early going and the backstretch. I think it was Hokahey who, in his review, mentioned that the dream sequence where Daniels' wife turns to ash would have been smashing had it been cut in half. The rhythms are off in that scene, and in the rest of the movie too -- I think because, as Tom Shone put it, Scorsese has never been and never will be a "genre director." He always tries to transform a genre exercise into something heavier, and invariably it collapses under the weight.

Dondi said...

You are bang on in every respect Craig. Nice review.

It was driving me nuts (bdum tish) where I'd seen this before...till I remembered The Ninth Configuration.

I would also add that Leo seems to be increasingly channeling Jack Nicholson in his performances these days...

Craig said...

Thanks, Dondi. Hadn't thought of Jack Nicholson, but you have a point there. Maybe he rubbed off on Leo in The Departed.