Martin Scorsese (expletive)s with your mind ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Martin Scorsese (expletive)s with your mind

Shutter Island
My rating:

I often have to restrain my temptation to criticise other film critics, especially local ones. I wouldn't want to be accused of being bitter or jealous of those who, unlike myself, are getting paid to do it. But I really have to say something about Amy de Kanter's review in The Star (dated Saturday 17th April, and sadly available nowhere online). Dear Ms. de Kanter, Shutter Island is most definitely horror - and your snooty disdain for that genre is hardly becoming of a film critic, although it does explain how you failed to recognize its tropes in this film. Yes, it is also a thriller, and no, the two do not have to be mutually exclusive.

But yes, I do agree with you that it is a good movie.

In 1954, U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) have arrived on Shutter Island, home of a mental hospital for the criminally insane, to investigate a missing patient (Emily Mortimer). The director of the hospital, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) appears to be cooperative - but right from the beginning, Teddy senses that something is wrong. He later reveals to Chuck that his true purpose is to investigate the goings-on at the hospital, suspecting it of being a cover for something far more sinister. However, Teddy is plagued by memories of how, as a WW2 G.I., he liberated the concentration camp at Dachau - and of his wife (Michelle Williams), who was killed in a fire. The longer he stays on the island, unable to leave nor contact the mainland due to a violent hurricane, the more he finds he can no longer trust anything - not even his own sanity.

The trailer for this has been playing on our screens for months, and when I first saw it my reaction was: are you sure this is a Martin Scorsese film? It looks more like something from Dark Castle, purveyor of schlocky horror flicks. Yes, it's a horror movie, but no, Scorsese does not make schlock - he made a disturbing, atmospheric, ominous mindf**k of a film that may be one of the best examples of its kind. That trailer is misleading on one level, accurate on another; it's a Martin Scorsese horror film, but it's also a Martin Scorsese horror film. And it may also be Scorsese's most stylish film to date; it employs visual trickery (even CGI!) both subtle and forceful, but always masterful.

Now here's where I confess that the plot was pretty much spoiled for me. I read a forum comment that compared it to a few other movies - and I've seen those other movies and knew what they had in common, and that alone was a spoiler. And now I'm going to tapdance around that spoiler, because it's the reason why I thought this was a really good film, but I didn't really enjoy it as much as I ought to have. Partly it's because I watched it with an eye towards picking up on all the clues of its twisty little mystery, and feeling quite pleased with myself every time I spotted the very minor ones that Scorsese dropped. Which isn't really being fair to it.

And partly it's because, if you've watched a few mindf**kery movies, you'll either see the ending coming a mile away or be pretty underwhelmed when it comes. The nature of genre films is that freshness counts for as much as execution; Shutter Island is a superbly well-executed example of a been-there-done-that story. If that seems like a harsh criticism, consider that it's the very nature of this kind of movie that its impact is almost entirely dependent on its ending. It owes very much to its director then, that he manages to make the proceedings leading up to it compelling.

It also owes a lot to its cast, who probably wouldn't have participated in this kind of movie without the stature of its director. Yes, that's Max von Sydow, Patricia Clarkson, Elias Koteas, Jackie Earle Haley and Ted Levine in minor roles - exceedingly minor ones, considering their reputations as highly respected character actors - but this film is all about prestigious talent in a decidedly low-prestige project. I wouldn't say it's a project that doesn't deserve them ('cos then I'd sound like Ms. de Kanter), because their presence really does bring an A-game to a genre inundated with B-grade entries. And there's also Leonardo DiCaprio's flawless performance as a haunted man, whose purpose is slowly being compromised by the same demons that drive it. This film would've failed badly without him - the same of which can be said of all the above names as well.

But most of all, it can be said of Martin Scorsese. A director of Scorsese's talent can only fail when his ambition exceeds his grasp, and Shutter Island is by no means an ambitious film - it's a horror-thriller that aims to chill and shock, and it is marvelously chilling and shocking. (I like to imagine Scorsese chuckling with glee as he shot it, like an old man playing with his childhood toys.) It's an example of what happens when a master filmmaker takes on a genre film; he brings to it an unparalleled level of craft. But it's also an example of what happens when a director attempts a genre he is unfamiliar with; he makes something that, to genre fans, is basically nothing new.

Expectations: can't wait!


fadz said...

whooh, love ur review... though not fresh, its sure am fun!

Lati0s said...

Memang membuatkan member2 gua terdiam sampai la sampai rumah.

Feel the wrath ov Martin Scorsese, haha.

chicnchomel said...

do u think martin or leo will get an oscar for this??

Unknown said...

Dear TMBF,

I was delighted to come across your comments. I wish I had found them sooner but although you addressed some of them to me personally, you never actually sent them to me. How I wish you had.

We newspaper critics have a disadvantage over bloggers in that we rarely get feedback from our readers. This does put us, as you reminded me, under the illusion sometimes that no one disputes what we say.

You said I am snooty about horror films. That made me laugh because you are absolutely right! I find them atrocious, but then when I think of horror films I always imagine that they involve blood, dismemberment and monsters that won't die. You say Shutter Island is a horror movie, so it sounds like I could use some enlightening. What, in your opinion is a horror film? Which would you consider to be among the best - I promise to try and watch if you recommend them. Who knows, you may change my mind.

Fellow-critic, thanks again for your semi-direct feedback. I never got the hang of blogging (I'm really, really old) but newspaper writing can be lonely business. Even when people disagree with me, I prefer dialogging (diablogging? diabolicalling?) to preaching. And I'm always grateful to anyone who can prove me wrong. Willing to give it a go?

Best regards and keep blogging.

Amy de Kanter

TMBF said...

@amy de: Hello Amy, sorry for taking so long to reply. And thank you for writing with somewhat more courtesy than I paid you in this review. :P

Genre definitions are fluid and not easily defined. That's why some films mix two or more together. Shutter Island qualifies as horror because of a number of things; one of them is the nightmarish imagery that Scorsese employs in the dream sequences. You said you don't like blood and gore, but there's a fair bit of it here - albeit it's not presented in an exploitative manner like the horror movies you presumably know and dislike. And the surreality of these scenes almost evokes the supernatural - and that's an element that clearly separates horror from thriller.

Another thing is that the plot involves a protagonist whose entire perception of reality is ripped apart. I'd say a story about this is horror because, well, it's horrifying. Much more so than, say, a child being kidnapped, or seeking the truth of WMDs in Iraq, or pursuing those who murdered your daughter. And although that last is pretty horrifying as well, all three are much more grounded and down-to-earth than what Teddy Daniels goes through here.

The last thing I can think of is the film's tone. Thrillers are defined by suspense, and while there's plenty of it here, there's also a pervasive sense of dread - and that's what defines horror. There's the sense that there can be no good ending to this story, no matter how much you're rooting for the hero; it starts out dark and grim, and it'll only get darker and grimmer as it goes till the final shattering conclusion.

I don't really blame you if your perception of horror is skewed by the Saws and the Hostels and the more exploitative side of the genre (some of which aren't really that bad, by their own standards). But for you, I'd recommend Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, Ridley Scott's Alien, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and William Friedkin's The Exorcist. (All classic films, so you may have seen them already. Yes, they're definitely horror.) And more recently, I really enjoyed Paranormal Activity, so I'd recommend that one as well.