Monday, February 22, 2010

A Post-Script Regarding Predictability

>There is an element of Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island that I barely touched on in my review, but which I believe needs to be briefly addressed at (slightly) greater length: the ending. I'm going to assiduously avoid spoilers in this post, but I would like to invite anyone who knows the film, or Dennis Lehane's novel, to let 'er rip in the comments, should they so desire, so anyone unfamiliar with either version of the story should be warned that the comments section here could turn into a hotbed of storytelling ruination. A hotbed, I tell you.

The truth is that I believe many people will outright hate the ending. And the further truth, as I implied in my review, is that when reading the novel, I was quite disappointed at the conclusion. I thought, in a sense, that I'd been jerked around. But the film has me reconsidering my harsh judgment of said ending, and most of this is due to the fact that Scorsese foregrounds an aspect of the story in a way that, to people who know nothing about where the story's heading, will make the ending predictable, even a foregone conclusion...intentionally so, perhaps. Okay, I have no way of knowing quite how predictable the film's climax -- the solution to the mystery -- will be to people who don't know the novel. However, it seemed to me that, experiencing the ending as the final moments of a, I believe, masterfully constructed film, the ending, specifically the solution to a complex mystery, has been backgrounded a bit. It's pretty much the exact same ending as the novel (with one interesting jolt to it), but it didn't seem like Scorsese cared about it functioning as a "twist". I think he'd be perfectly happy if everyone predicted what was coming early on, and just wanted to see how the story and visuals built to it. Scorsese has said in the past that while he loves well-plotted films, as a moviegoer, as a director he doesn't have much sense on how to make them. I think he sells himself short a bit in that sense, but clearly his primary interest lies elsewhere. And I think it's hard to argue that his interest lay elsewhere when putting Shutter Island together -- every frame of the film practically shrieks that fact.

All of which, I acknowledge, sounds very much like an attempt to make excuses for what could be regarded as a big flaw in the film. But I wonder, if you do not pick up on Scorsese's clues -- which I think are quite blatant -- and find yourself as bugged by Scorsese's Shutter Island as I was when I first read Lehane's novel, what your reaction would be when and if you revisit the film at a later date. If, in other words, you go in experiencing the film as work of visual art, and not as an unfolding narrative. And by the way, I'm all about experiencing films as an unfolding narrative -- it's one of the main reasons I watch them -- but I also know full well what a given film's greater power can be in the long run. If narrative was all films were about, then very few films would have any rewatch value, and we all know that an overwhelming number of them do. So what I'm arguing for here is Shutter Island's rewatch value, something even I can't gauge, and I loved it the first time around.

But those of you who've seen it, ignorant of where it was heading...how did the ending strike you? Did you think, as I do, that Scorsese was relentlessly and deliberately signalling his intentions almost from the start, so that the ending was not quite the left turn that other takes on the story might have been, but entirely of a piece with the intense imagery that preceded it?

16 comments:

Ryan Kelly said...

Bill, I'm formulating my own piece on this so don't want to go on at too great a length, but I will say that I thought Scorsese made it quite clear that the guy was nuts... and by the time he's walking around in the patient scrubs not even doing anything (he's not looking for clues half the time, he's just kind of... wandering around. By himself) I thought it was perfectly clear. And then that scene when he has a migraine because of the hurricane. Not the acts of a sane man. But, then again, I knew there would be a twist coming... so maybe I was thinking along those lines.

bill r. said...

Yeah, there isn't much detecting going on. And the patient garb...I can't remember if that's in the book, but regardless it males for a more jarring and telling film image. Plus, his nightmarea/flashbacks begin almost at once. It's like Scorsese is leading us by the nose. In a good way, o mean.

Arbogast said...

There has to be a Sniglet (remember those?) for the kind of investigation you do into a new work in which you pry a little bit without trying to learn too much. It seems a doomed prospect, doesn't it... and yet we keep doing it. There's something drug addict-y about the whole endeavor... I can stop (reading) any time I want. Just a little bit more... just a little bit more...

bill r. said...

Arbogast, that is absolutely true. I've weakened the impact, at least a little bit, of countless movies this way, including my two favorite films from last year (A SERIOUS MAN and INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS -- in neither case can I say that I ruined anything for myself, but I wish I'd read just a little bit less than I did). And I knew about the frogs in MAGNOLIA months in advance, and have never forgiven myself for it.

Jason Bellamy said...

Bill: You're on to something here.

In my own review and in the comments of others I have debated Scorsese's treatment of the mystery.

(SPOILERS AHEAD, obviously.)

I was unfamiliar with the book and yet spotted the "twist" very quickly. It seems others did, too. Many of those who spotted the mystery early have come to the conclusion that Scorsese must have wanted us to come to that conclusion. Those who didn't spot it ahead of time (and I'm basing this on several different reviews and comments sections not linked above) seem to have been disappointed by the ending. As you say, it's a matter of whether the film compells first and foremost with its visuals or its narrative. And that leads me here ...

Without rehashing everything from my own review, or from other comments sections, my contention is that Scorsese still conceals the mystery to the point that I question his handling of the material. Because for as many clues as he provides, he still holds a lot back, still has entire scenes (Patricia Clarkson in the caves, for example) that seem to be about nothing but the narrative mystery. It's as if he wants to have it both ways.

If it's true that Scorsese doubts his narrative mystery prowess, perhaps he started dangling clues early fearful that he wouldn't pull it off. Fair enough. Still, what he doesn't do is just say, "Fuck it, my film isn't about narrative mystery, it's about X, so let's let the cat out of the bag and move on."

I'm not trying to imply that it has to be one or the other. But almost everyone seems to agree that the film is at its best when it is visually stimulating, and it's most visually stimulating when the narrative mystery isn't getting in the way. I think that says something that shouldn't be so quickly ignored or forgiven.

bill r. said...

Those are excellent points, Jason. If I had to guess, I would say that SHUTTER ISLAND was more than likely a work for hire job for Scorsese, one that he nevertheless connected with on some level. So here you have the novel, the narrative of which plays out essentially as it does on screen, and here you have the director, hired to visually bring that to life on screen. This director may not much care about the mystery, and would rather play up what the film is really about -- which technically we don't know until the end -- and do it to the hilt.

I don't think that Scorsese WANTS you to guess what's coming, necessarily, but rather that he doesn't mind if you do, and he doesn't let the story stop him from visualizing what is interesting to him to visualize. What he conceals, he conceals based on the script he was given, but mainly, I think, because of the genre he's working in. All of which begs the question: if an ending like this is predictable, does that rob it of all its power?

In any event, I can't excuse or condemn what Scorsese's up to here (and can only speculate about his motives), because I'd read the book, so I didn't have the option of successfully predicting the outcome, or of failing to. Since you say you DID predict it, Jason, were you disappointed? And what do you think of my point about the film possibly having greater rewatch value, than...er, first-watch value?

Hokahey said...

There are plenty of movies that I found totally predictable but which I love nonetheless. It's all a question of whether or not your enjoy the ride getting to the ending.

I predicted the ending here - hadn't read the book - and I predicted it with dread. The closer I got to the revelation the more I cringed and, in fact, said, "No, no, no, no." I didn't want the it's-all-an-illusion twist. But I guess my big disappointment with the story is my problem. That's not the film Scorsese was making. I don't like stories which end up being someone's illusion; too bad for me. So what do I have left?

Was the ride enjoyable?

The ride was enjoyable in many places but somewhat underwhelming. I enjoyed the acting, the art direction - some of the gripping scenes - but the mysteries/illusions went on too long, thus cutting the suspense. Some of the dreams were too long. The storm scenes were too long.

And when I know something is probably not really happening, it removes me from the story's immediacy. I guess the way I view a cinematic narrative is old-fashioned. I view the action as "happening" - and when I discover that many significant dramatic moments didn't really happen, I don't feel as gripped.

But I am willing to give this movie a second viewing to see how the ride is the second time.

bill r. said...

Hokahey, I typically don't like those kinds of endings, either, for all the reasons you state. That's why I'm bringing up the "rewatch" idea, because essentially that's how I experienced SHUTTER ISLAND, having read the novel, to which the film was very faithful.

As for the "things didn't happen" idea, I feel like more things really happened here than you think, but not for the reasons we originally thought. But it's not like they didn't happen at all.

Jason Bellamy said...

Bill: I think you're exactly right that the film might have a higher rewatch value. Which begs the question: why not give it more first-watch value by avoiding the mind games that seem to distract rather than focus?

You write (and I agree) ...

This director may not much care about the mystery, and would rather play up what the film is really about ... he doesn't let the story stop him from visualizing what is interesting to him to visualize.

So, if Scorsese isn't interested in the mystery, why does it get so much attention? If he doesn't care, why should I? Again, I'm not trying to trying to suggest there's some "right" way to do it. But in the end it seems like the mystery is more of an obstacle for both the director and the audience. I find that perplexing.

To be clear, I enjoyed the film. But I'm not sure why Scorsese, at this point in his career, isn't making the movie he wants, if that's what's happened here.

bill r. said...

Well, Jason, I wouldn't assume that Scorsese was viewing it as a matter of rewatch value vs. first-watch value. I read your review, and your comparison to VERTIGO is very well taken, and frankly hard to counter. All I can offer, as pure speculation, is while that Scorsese didn't necessarily CARE that he was making a film with a twist ending, he didn't necessarily MIND that, either. I'm guessing he simply wanted to mess around in that genre. You clearly think he should have messed around more, and maybe he should have, but the fact is that it's impossible to know how that other version of the film would have turned out. Since apparently nobody was interested in making it, probably not very well. But I see your point, and I don't know. The film played like gangbusters for me.

Despite, I reiterate, not usually liking this kind of thing, or even the book -- well, the ending of the book -- very much. But compare this to something like IDENTITY, a film that's basically a hoax from beginning to end. That movie's not even about people, ANY people. SHUTTER ISLAND is. Maybe the film should have been called TEDDY DANIELS.

Jason Bellamy said...

Good thoughts. Shutter Island is funny for me as I've found myself arguing in favor of it when I come across pans and arguing against it when I come across raves. It's certainly not a movie to be dismissed, but I also always have a problem when folks dismiss curious decisions by a director with arguments like: "Clearly the guy knew what he was doing, and he's a great filmmaker, and therefore this is a great decision." If A+B=C then C-B=A ... that sort of thing. I'm not at all suggesting that's what you're doing here, by the way.

My take is the Scorsese got a little greedy and tried to have the best of both -- character examination and mystery. And, you know what, it still works for the most part. No question about it. But it's hard to do both at the same time without eventually feeling like the film, well, has a bit of an identity crisis, to borrow the headline of my review.

It's been a great movie to debate, though. I'm always grateful for that.

The Caustic Ignostic said...

I hadn't read the novel, and I have to admit that I didn't see the conclusion coming at all. A consensus seems to be emerging that said conclusion is detectable from miles offshore, so I guess I'm feeling more sheepish and defensive than usual. :) I think I just got so sucked in by the atmospherics--the best part of this film, in my opinion--that I never stopped to think about the fact that the mad scientist / CIA / Nazi / HUAC / etc. conspiracy story "Teddy" is spinning is utterly implausible. Chalk that one up to Scorsese's success or my failure, depending on your outlook.

Strictly as a satisfying resolution to a twisty puzzlebox of a film, I thought the ending was good stuff. And like any good twisty film--Nolan's Memento and Fincher's Fight Club come to mind--I'm inspired to view it again and savor the way the thing is constructed, to see how knowledge of the "what's really going on" alters my perceptions of everything that precedes that ending.

My review:

http://gatewaycinephiles.com/2010/02/22/experimental-treatment/

The Caustic Ignostic said...

And I'm pretty sure the white outfit that "Teddy" dons when his suit is soaked is orderly garb, not patient garb. The orderly who hands the outfit to him even comments that the only other option is "prisoner gray".

Adam Zanzie said...

See, I didn't predict the film's secret. Before I walked into the film, my work supervisor did hint that he could tell from the trailers that the movie would be heading in that direction- but as the film rolled on, I said to myself, "Nah. There's no evidence to suggest it.". And then, of course, it happened.

My initial reaction was of disappointment, since I felt like the plot twist really spoiled Scorsese's attempt at making a film noir. Just a straight, linear, mysterios, conspiracy-thriller film noir. I didn't think the plot twist was necessary at first, partially because I was rooting for Teddy and wanted him to expose those clowns. It just HURT when I realized that he was his own antihero all along.

But thinking about how the film ultimately ends that way is actually kind of sad, poetically. The scene where Teddy murders his wife and cries about it? DiCaprio is wonderful there. Some of his best acting ever.

I'm planning on seeing it again, but for me, Shutter Island is better than both Gangs of New York and The Departed. However, I consider The Aviator to still be Scorsese's reigning masterpiece of the last ten years, too often dismissed as "Oscar bait" when it is in fact a stirring, unsympathetic portrayal of a multifaceted man. It opens with him as a naked boy, and by the time it's over, he's locked in a room. That's all that needs to be said, really.

Greg said...

My review should be up tonight or in the morning. Just saying...

bill r. said...

Caustic, don't feel sheepish. I'm actually bad at predicting this kind of thing myself. I didn't predict the ending when I read the book, after all -- although I did see people guessing this ending correctly well before the film came out, just based on the trailer. But I'm not good at that sort of thing, generally.

Anyway, I'm glad you thought it worked as well as I did. This is a strangely divisive movie, but I think the film, taken as a whole, and primarily on reflection (for those of you who hadn't read the novel) will find the movie's impact growing stronger on reflection. I hope so, anyway.

Also, as for the orderly garb...yeah, I think you're right. Still, it's SORT OF a clue...

Adam - This was never going to be a straight film noir, even had the ending been about a conspiracy. From the beginning, SHUTTER ISLAND is far more Gothic than it is noir. I think calling this a horror film, as some people are doing, is a bit of a stretch, but only a bit.

I like THE AVIATOR, too. Not as much as you do, but as you say, that ending alone removes it from the realm of the standard biopic.

Greg - Tonight, I hope. Or do I...?

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