Sunday, February 28, 2010

Scorsese, Shutter Island, and Auteurism

As always, but it bears another mention in this case, no spoilers unless noted.

"Interesting directors make interesting films."

It's a fairly simple, obvious statement, but in making it, Glenn Kenny sort of blows out of the water a topic that took hold of film criticism, both in print and online, in the week or so surrounding the release of Martin Scorsese's latest film, Shutter Island. The question was, "did critics give Shutter Island a break simply for being directed by Martin Scorsese?"

In the weeks following the release of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, my girlfriend asked if my growing esteem for the film stemmed purely from it being directed by David Fincher. I sort of stumbled through a response, which included the fact that most of what I responded to in the film was the direction, but also that there are aspects to Fincher's work (both in the plot-oriented, twist-ending puzzle phase of his career, and whatever you'd label his post-Panic Room work) that I simply respond to. These can be difficult to put into words, but it's become clear that Fincher makes certain decisions and has certain concerns (aesthetic, moral, cinematic, thematic) that operate on a wavelength that reaches me. I could say the same of Malick, Resnais, Godard, Welles, Bergman, Antonioni, Coppola (Francis and Sofia), Kubrick, the Coens, Anderson (Wes and P.T.), Hawks, Van Sant, Soderbergh, Crowe, or, indeed...Scorsese. These are directors who, more than simply turning out work I consistently enjoy (that'd be a whole other list), clearly have a lot to say to me, and to whom I respond intensely and personally, even if I can acknowledge that their latest isn't all that good.

So, have critics given Scorsese a break this time around?

More after the jump...

Shutter Island is a tremendously flawed film (more on that in a second), but what's great about it is so much greater than what isn't. But the real problem is in the question, which goes along with the sucks/rocks dichotomy that the Rotten Tomatoes mindset has encouraged in how the general public (and, apparently, critics themselves) reads film criticism. The question is phrased so that the only thing a viewer can respond to is the craft (and, specifically in this case, the script and issues surrounding it), and anything else is simply wrangling around easily identifiable problems.

Kenny went on to ask, "What other pictures in commercial release right now are you actually interested in talking about?" And that's really the question. For as flawed as Shutter Island is in a checklist, fresh-rotten, thumbs-up-thumbs-down sort of way, it's an immensely fascinating film, and one I'm dying to talk about. It's one of those rare films, like Youth Without Youth or Wild Grass (or Elizabethtown, The Darjeeling Limited, Zabriskie Point, Marie Antoinette, Mr. Arkadin, Last Days, Ocean's Thirteen, and on and on and on) that is way better, to me (and quite a few other people), than it actually is. To relate it back to Kenny's question, Up in the Air is still playing at many first-run theaters here in Portland, and while I'd, without reservation, say it's a "better" film than Shutter Island, the latter is infinitely more interesting.

Okay, so aside from the intangibles, let's look at what's actually in the film. First off, it's a first-rate thriller. Scorsese whips up suspense like a master, especially noteworthy as he doesn't have a lot of background in the form. Second, it's gorgeous to look at - the film was shot by Robert Richardson, he of JFK, Nixon, Kill Bill, The Aviator, and Inglourious Basterds, turning out some of his best work to date. Third, it's got mood and atmosphere to spare; Scorsese pulls out all the stops in proudly referencing everything from The Shining to L'Avventura to Vertigo, all movies that live or die by how it feels to sit inside their worlds. And the performances are just top-notch all around - should be no surprise, but having DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, Max Von Sydow, Patrcia Clarkson, Mark Ruffalo, Elias Koteas, John Carroll Lynch, Michelle Williams, Jackie Earle Haley, and Emily Mortimer...yeah, you're gonna do pretty well.

But what's really interesting is what comes later, so *spoilers*.

So, yes, it turns out DiCaprio's character, let's call him "Teddy" (as that's the name DiCaprio goes by for almost all of the film), is crazy. And while I highly support this decision in principle, and it lends itself to some great imagery of the mind - a huge storm, visions of his dead wife and children - the practice of it, the actual dramatics of the reveal and its practical implications, are almost crippling. For example, the film would have us believe that the men who run the mental institution literally let Teddy stroll around the grounds, roaming freely, interviewing other patients, acting like a federal marshall, and generally just running amok. How would this be at all helpful for any of the other patients? The extent to which it helps him is pretty questionable itself, especially considering they could have just set the whole damn thing in his head.

Furthmore, Ben Kingsley, the chief actor tasked with explaining the plot, is given waaaayyyyy too much to explain. Frequent readers will know I hate the part in all thrillers in which one character just sits around and explains the whole plot the the audience (because Lord knows the characters rarely get any great insight from it). It's always the worst scene of any given movie (Psycho, Eyes Wide Shut, etc.), but here they push it to new levels of dumb by having Kingsley actually pull out a chart to demonstrate a pretty simple concept.

THAT mentioned, Psycho ended with a similar scene. Eyes Wide Shut had a similar scene in the last twenty minutes or so. Both are masterpieces by two of the best filmmakers we've ever had. Even if such scenes are excruciating to sit through, they don't necessarily kill a film, and Shutter Island stacks up pretty damn well as a whole. Aside from the assets mentioned above, what we're left with is a familiar Scorsese lead, but one cinema can't have enough of - a totally broken man, wracked with guilt and unable to stop punishing himself for what he, deep down, knows to be true. Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis don't give us a moment of false hope, in which it's possible that DiCaprio's character could recover, just for the sake of false hope. He's had these breakthroughs before, but regressed then as well - this is a man driven by what he knows but is unable to consciously acknowledge, and so his every action will somehow punish him. It's sort of a living version of Neil Gaiman's vision of Hell in Sandman, a place populated by people who know they belong there, and actively seek their due punishment.

It's no mere whim to set the film in the mid-1950s, at the height of postwar financial comfort, but a society in denial; paranoid and claustrophobic. "Teddy" takes this so far that he constructs an alternate reality in which the whole world is against him. Is that so different than what so many of us do? Certain that we're the good, crusading figure against a world of evil, filled with people who are constantly trying to hold us back and deceive us. Everyone tries to turn themselves into a victim, when all too often we're the perpetrator.

The consequences of these implications for the film are fascinating; for humanity, they're fairly staggering. Shutter Island is hardly a movie that needs Scorsese's reputation - all it required was his skill.

Shutter Island is out now in wide release.


Unknown said...

I'd like to compliment your criticism of this film. It's thoughtful and well argued.

I definitely agree that Shutter Island is suspense filled and visually stunning. I like your tie in with the Cold War era into the overarching plot as well as the idea that sometimes who a director is impacts our overall critique of the film.

Anonymous said...

Good criticism can sometimes be hard to find for a film like this. I've actually seen it 3 times and each time it seems to hold up better. I don't know if you've seen it more than once or care to see it again, but I can say that subsequent viewings made me feel it was a much tighter film than I initially thought. I could even almost completely buy the premise because it's quite obvious that Teddy is being watched over by his doctors rather closely if you watch the other actors, particularly Ruffalo who gives a tremendous subtle performance. To me, who grew up in the '50s, it's not entirely unlikely such a thing could have happened especially if you look at some of the things done by various government entities to people during that time with drugs like LSD. We forget just how different a time that was and how easy it was to get away with some rather strange experiments, some of which ended fatally and were covered up until the library of congress was allowed to open files under the freedom of information act. My own feelings about the film fell into place after the third viewing. I now think without reservation, that it's a masterpiece.

Scott Nye said...

Anonymous - Thanks for the insight. I kind of wondered if such practices wouldn't be so outlandish in the 1950s, so it's nice to hear from someone who would know (I guess I could have done some research, but that would take, you know, EFFORT on my part).

I've only seen it once and am very eager to watch it again, particularly with some of your thoughts on the performances in mind.