Friday, February 19, 2010


In David Edelstein's negative review of Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, he takes a second to place at least a little bit of the blame on Dennis Lehane's source novel. "Dennis Lehane's novel," he writes " a doodle, a Paul Auster Lite breather between his tortured Mystic River and the panoramic The Given Day." What Paul Auster has to do with what's in that book, I don't know, but I will agree with Edelstein on a couple of things about Lehane's work, neither of which are stated outright, but which can be inferred: that Mystic River is a masterpiece, and that Shutter Island isn't as good (I haven't read The Given Day yet). What I absolutely do not agree with Edelstein about is the idea that Shutter Island was, for Lehane, a lark, some inconsequential dash-off that he needed to get out of the way before he settled down to something that mattered. I don't know how you can read that book and not feel to your bones the deep sense of loss, the spiritual tearing that comes with grief, on every page. Where I turned ambivalent to Lehane's novel was the climax, when the hugely entertaining post-World War II Gothic-detective maze reaches its destination, and I was forced to incredulously ask "That's what this was about?"
Yes, that's what it was about, and while I still am not sure the ending is as strong as it could be, either on the page or on the screen, or that there maybe wasn't some other way entirely to do it, Martin Scorsese's film version (written by Laeta Kalogridis, and co-produced by Lehane) makes me feel a little bit like a chump for being so unsure about Lehane's motivation. Before I get into why, I should probably confess something. You see, I think Martin Scorsese -- or "MartSco", as he'd probably insist I call him, should we ever meet -- is a good filmmaker. I enjoy his films very much, and have done so for many, many years. Wait, don't leave! I understand that a past and -- worse, and therefore more importantly -- consistent appreciation of Scorsese's work renders any opinion I have of whatever movie he has out right now null and void (provided that opinion is a positive one), and that the only people who can be trusted to give an honest and clear-headed assessment of MartSco's current work are those who haven't liked any of his movies from the past decade (or so I've recently learned), but please, let me at least finish. These water buckets are heavy.
It's hard to know where to begin talking about Scorsese's Shutter Island. It might do to quote Edelstein again, who laments that the film is "suffocatingly movieish", which is a hell of a thing to complain about. When Edelstein reads Nabokov's fiction, does he complain that it's "too novelly"? If I take him to mean that the film is too bold in its style, then I would ask what, exactly, he was expecting? After all, Shutter Island is about two U.S. Marshals -- Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) -- who, in 1954, are sent out to the titular island, on which can be found Ashcliff Hospital, an institute for the criminally insane, from which has escaped a patient named Rachel Solando, who is, we are told, a very dangerous woman. Daniels is a pretty beat-up looking wreck when we first meet him, and he's also a war hero who helped liberate Dachau, an ex-drinker, and a widower -- his wife died a couple years back, in a fire ("She died of smoke inhalation," Daniels tells Chuck. "Not the fire. That's very important."). So this island, and this asylum, is packed with mentally deranged killers, and, as the film opens, the hospital staff and the prison guards (for Ashcliff is that, too, in a sense) are a bit concerned about the massive stormfront heading their way. So, 1950s, island, mental asylum, deranged killers, hurricane...all well and good, but please, could you tone it down a bit!?
The gist of all this being that I think Shutter Island is beautiful, the most visually arresting film Scorsese has made since Gangs of New York, and the most stylistically consistent, and the most justified and organic in its specific bold choices, since at least Casino, and probably as far back as Goodfellas. With this film, I got the feeling that Scorsese was scratching a particularly nagging itch, one he hadn't quite reached the last time he tried for it, with his, I believe, badly misjudged remake of J. Lee Thompson's Cape Fear. As Teddy Daniels goes deeper into the case, he begins to have some fairly awful flashbacks, and even worse nightmares, about his past traumas in the war, and dealing with the death of his wife. The nightmare sequences, in particular, are gloriously horrible, rich and varied in their imagery, and like all good nightmares, more terrible before we know what they mean than after.
These scenes -- the whole film, really -- are nightmare-as-opera, Gothic horror treated seriously, not as a way to get a few kicks. Scorsese is pulling from a very deep cinematic well for his inspiration here: Kubrick, film noir, Val Lewton, Ingmar Bergman (the very welcome presence of Max von Sydow in the film, as one of the hospital's senior doctors, wasn't the only thing about Shutter Island that made me think of Hour of the Wolf). So it's this self-consciousness, and not just what Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson make the camera do, that is probably what Edelstein means when he talks about the movie being "movieish", but so what? Remember how last year everybody was saying that Inglourious Basterds was really, at its heart, all about movies? And how that was so great and everything? Well, so is Shutter Island. In this film, characters say things, important things, while staring off into the middle distance, like characters in a 1940s melodrama. And watch Mark Ruffalo in the background of an early scene set at the home of Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley); DiCaprio, Kingsley and Von Sydow have pretty much all the lines, but when Ruffalo does interject, he has the jittery bits of business and sweep-the-room eyes of a film noir character actor.
The puzzled look on your face tells me that I'm doing a bad job of describing this -- well, it is difficult to put into words, but the point is that while Scorsese may be wearing his cinematic influences on his sleeve here, and he wants you to notice (though it's plenty okay if you don't), his motives are pure: this is the best way to tell this story, to build this mood, and to oppress you with an atmosphere of violence, mourning, madness, and soul-destroying guilt.
All of which is just more "water-balloon throwing to Marty", or whatever it is people who enjoyed this film are supposed to be doing. If you clicked on any of those links I provided earlier, you'll probably have seen people making reference to the dishonesty inherent in anything positive said about the film, and Scorsese in general, and you'll have seen Glenn Kenny -- who was quite keen on the movie -- wonder if possibly some of his goodwill towards it has to do with his state of mind at the time he saw it. Well, let me offer my own bit of justification for feeling the way I do about Shutter Island: this is the kind of shit I like! I love film noir, I love Gothic horror, stories about storms and the criminally insane, and their possibly evil doctors. And I love it best when it's taken seriously.
I've often wished that I'd never seen The Shining, so that I could still look forward to seeing it for the first time. The very idea that an artist of Kubrick's stature made a straight-ahead horror film on such a grand and chilling scale is something I will always be grateful for. Shutter Island, for reasons that might finally amount to nitpickery, is not quite horror, not literally, but in its wonderfully suffocating moviesh-ness, it recognizes two things very specific to the genre, and even portrays both: that all supernatural horror is a metaphor: for death, our fear of it, of the unknown and our fear of that; and that the truth behind the metaphor is quite often worse than we ever imagined.


Ryan Kelly said...

"suffocatingly movieish" strikes me as a perfect encapsulation of Edelstein-ian nonsense (hope he isn't reading). Bill, you hate Edelstein, I hate Edelstein, so why do you continue to read him? Are you a glutton for punishment?

This is a wonderful review of the movie. I haven't seen it yet but can't wait. I, too, am a Scorsese-ian Water Carrier, and think Bringing out the Dead and Gangs of New York are as good as anything he's ever made. The Aviator is about as good as a relatively formulaic bio-pic can possibly be, and The Departed was enjoyable for what it was. The Scorsese backlash has reached critical mass with the relase of Shutter Island, which some deem 'unworthy' of the maker of many masterpieces. But one thing I've always loved about Scorsese is the way he constantly tries new things; even The Departed, which kind of felt like a meta-Scorsese gangster picture, was unlike anything he's ever made.

And, you do this a lot Bill. I'll be reading your well written reviews and you'll throw in something like this "The puzzled look on your face tells me that I'm doing a bad job of describing this". Don't say things like that. They're not true at all. I admire how you are both an excellent writer and humble at once but you really shouldn't insult your own writing.

bill r. said...

Thank you very much, Ryan. I don't actually read Edelstein that much, but I did read this one, and I'm glad I did, because it helped give my own review shape. One, the fact that he and I lined up -- up to a point -- on Lehane's fiction gave me a beginning, and that bizarre "movieish" criticism gave me a frame for my own praise of that aspect of SHUTTER ISLAND.

I'm pretty much completely with you when it comes to recent Scorsese films, with the exception that I liked THE DEPARTED a lot more than you did. That movie completely gripped me, and though it's flawed -- Martin Sheen is a complete blank, Nicholson is way too much sometimes, etc. -- I could watch it over and over again.

As for insulting my own writing, well, I sometimes don't think I get things across that well. In this case, a description for what Ruffalo is doing here proved very elusive, and felt I should acknowledge that. That's all. Once you've seen the film, maybe you can tell me if you have any idea what I was talking about.

Greg said...

I don't think saying you like Scorsese is going out on a limb at all but I understand how you could feel that way. Filmmakers, songwriters, actors, writers, etc. are all supposed to go downhill after a certain time and because of the expectation of that happeneing people often dismiss out of hand the talent clearly present in their later works, which can be done while at the same time acknowledging it still might not be up to their earlier work.

Ryan said:

I, too, am a Scorsese-ian Water Carrier, and think Bringing out the Dead and Gangs of New York are as good as anything he's ever made. The Aviator is about as good as a relatively formulaic bio-pic can possibly be, and The Departed was enjoyable for what it was.

I'm not that wild about any of those films, Gangs of New York being the one I like the most, but I wouldn't look at any and not recognize the talent of a serious filmmaker at work. I think it's foolish to treat Scorsese like he's some hack at this point, and quite frankly, it grates on my nerves. It has the whiff of fashionable hipster disdain.

bill r. said...

Greg, I don't feel like I'm going out on a limb by saying I like Scorsese -- I was trying to have fun with the idea -- but if you read around the internet, and read some of the less-favorable views on SHUTTER ISLAND, you'll find plenty of people who seem to think you'd better be upfront about still liking the guy, or you're lying. Or something. And if you DO still like Scorsese, then you can't be trusted about SHUTTER ISLAND. I don't get it. Even A. O. Scott is getting in on this nonsense.

I think it's foolish to treat Scorsese like he's some hack at this point, and quite frankly, it grates on my nerves. It has the whiff of fashionable hipster disdain...

Absolutely. I couldn't have said it better myself.

Doniphon said...

I have absolutely no problem admitting that I think Gangs Of New York is the best movie Scorsese has ever made (I did so a week ago on my blog), and although The Aviator and The Departed really felt like annoyingly restrained coasting to me, Shutter Island strikes me as the real deal. I'm probably going to go see it again tomorrow, it really blew me away, and frankly this makes Basterds' movieness look like child's play. A lot of the reviews I've read are attacking the form more than the content though, saying that it's well-made and that Scorsese knows how to construct a sequence, but that a horror movie is beneath him, which is weird since a.) it's not really a horror movie and b.) that's so transparently snobbish it's ridiculous.

bill r. said...

Doniphon, I knew I'd seen at least one person wonder why Scorsese was wasting him time with this material, but I couldn't remember who, and didn't feel like digging for it, so I left that out. Besides, if I got into that kind of thing, this review would have turned into an angry rant.

Kevin J. Olson said...

This definitely makes me want to see this film as soon as possible. I love when a movie by such a giant of the cinema is so polarizing. The conversation here has been great and I'll return with something more after seeing the movie, but I just wanted to make sure I at least left some kind of comment on here telling what a damn fine post this was, Bill.

Tony Dayoub said...

The problem with A.O. Scott, who I respect as a writer, is his weird taste in films. I haven't seen SHUTTER ISLAND yet, but many of the people whose taste runs similar to mine such as you or Glenn seem to like it.

Scott, on the other hand, just recommended the Nicholas Sparks potboiler DEAR JOHN, saying that Channing Tatum (as stiff an actor as I've ever seen) has an interesting presence about him in this film. Really? He puts WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE on his top 10 list for THE DECADE. Really?

So I'm supposed to believe that SHUTTER ISLAND is so serious a misfire I should skip it?

Anonymous said...

Paul Auster? That kinda broke my brain. I've read Shutter Island and about two thirds of Auster's stuff and I have literally no idea what that could mean.

Great write-up, Bill. I can't wait to see this. Add me to the list of water carriers. It does seem to me that a lot of the current bitching about Marty (we're tight) is akin to indie rock fans getting pissed when their pet band starts playing arenas. I think this betrays a failure to understand the fact that Scorcese's career proceeded as it did because he's something of a man out of time. Scorcese operated on the (relative) margins for years because it was the only way someone without major blockbuster bonafides could make the variety of films he wanted to make. Is there ANYONE in Hollywood today who would have been more thrilled to be a studio contract director circa 1936? "What am I making this month? A western? Neat!" And then a gangster pic, and then a biopic, and then a screwball, and then an adaptation of a canonical literary property, and eventually a technicolor bible epic, and etc. I think he always wanted to be playing with studio cash and be part of the Hollywood continuum- the town had just changed too much by the time he arrived.

Random note: I've lived my whole life in southeastern New England, residing in both MA and RI. Matt Damon saying "fuckstick" in THE DEPARTED got as big a laugh of recognition at my local theater as anything I've ever witnessed.

Anonymous said...

I'd just like to add that I enjoyed writing an authoritative paragraph about Scorsese's career, mental state, and hopes and dreams while misspelling his name several times.

Craig said...

Bill, have you ever read William Peter Blatty's "Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane" or seen Blatty's own movie adaptation "The Ninth Configuration"? (Which the book is now usually called too.) I have, which was probably why I guessed the twist in Scorsese's film coming over an hour away. (I'm usually not good at the sort of thing.) Frankly, if Lehane didn't lift the premise and plot twist from Blatty's source, it's an incredible coincidence.

bill r. said...

Kevin - thanks very much. I hope you get to see it soon.

Tony - Scott is an odd one. I watch him on AT THE MOVIES amd find him a far more engaging personality than Phillips, but his taste sometimes doesn't make a lick of sense.

Otherbill - I can definitely see your point about Scorsese and the studio system, at least as it pertains to his recent work, but I'm pretty sure I remember him saying that he doesn't think he'd fit in. He loves those movies, but I think in his younger days he would have bristled at the lack of control. Now, he seems to be a one man version of it, for lack of any other option.

Craig - yes, I've read that novel*, and seen Blatty's film -- in fact, that's one of my favorite movies. And somehow I didn't pick up on the similarities. Sure, when I read Lehane's novel, I thought "THIS again?", but I did so in relation to the stream of twist-ending movies that had flooded out of Hollywood in recent years. What a fool I am. All that I can say about Scorsese's film is that the ending, despite not being terribly original, worked quite well.

*Now I get to be pedantic! Sorry, can't help it, but Blatty did write a novel called TWINKLE TWINKLE "KILLER" KANE, but he felt it was more of a sketch than a novel, so some years later he used the same premise, and many of the same characters, in a new novel called THE NINTH CONFIGURATION. Then he made the film. So there are two books by Blatty with the same premise, but different titles. And for the record, I've only read CONFIGURATION.

Craig said...

Now I get to be pedantic! Sorry, can't help it, but Blatty did write a novel called TWINKLE TWINKLE "KILLER" KANE, but he felt it was more of a sketch than a novel, so some years later he used the same premise, and many of the same characters, in a new novel called THE NINTH CONFIGURATION. Then he made the film. So there are two books by Blatty with the same premise, but different titles. And for the record, I've only read CONFIGURATION.

Right. He said he wanted to flesh it out, though he thought the first one was funnier. People forget Blatty was/is very funny -- he co-wrote the best of the Inspector Clouseau movies, "A Shot in the Dark."

Of the two "Ninth Configuration" books I've only looked at 'Kane' (my mother had a copy), but the film version is crazy, funny, thoughtful, pretentious, beautiful to look at, and dare I say a lot more fun than "Shutter Island."

bill r. said...

THE NINTH CONFIGURATION is a very funny film, it's true (Blatty has written several comic novels, and has another called CRAZY in the pipeline, but you probably knew that) and the film is loaded with great performances (God rest you, Ed Flanders), but I do think SHUTTER ISLAND is pretty damn fun, too. At least I personally this kind of bleak Gothic psychological nightmare to be fun, of a sort.

Also, DIMITER comes out soon! Agh, I can't wait!

Craig said...

Haven't heard about "Crazy." Thanks for the head's-up.

You know how I made the connection between "Shutter Island" and "Ninth Configuration"? I think it was the casting of Max von Sydow. For the entire first half I kept asking myself why this story felt s familiar. Then when he appeared (still looking 80 as he has for the past 40 years), my mind went from "von Sydow" to "Exorcist" to "Blatty" to "Configuration." Like I said, I'm normally the last person to guess a surprise twist or a solution to a mystery. (The butler did it? You don't say!)

bill r. said...

Whereas as Von Sydow helped me to connect the film -- loosely, and thematically only, I think -- to Bergman's HOUR OF THE WOLF. But you're right. When you're right, you're right. And you're right. Mind you, I'm not prepared to say that Lehane ripped Blatty off, partly because he didn't really get their first -- Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND plays with the same idea, in a way -- and also, even if he had, it seems entirely possible for two writers to hit on this particular idea independent of each other. It seems like an idea that's sitting their, waiting to be used by any number of people.

Anonymous said...

Bill- was just out shopping for my nephew's b-day present and noticed that the latest issue of Cemetery Dance has a special section on Blatty. Interview, unpublished excerpts, etc. Thought you might want to know. Assuming you don't already.

bill r. said...

I did not know about that, otherbill. Thanks! I'll see if I can hunt that down tomorrow night.

Greg said...

I just wanted to add this was a great contribution to the "For the Love of Film" blogathon. Nice work, and thanks again.

bill r. said...

Man, fuck you!

Okay, that was harsh.

Man, screw you!

Greg said...

I think you should have gone all the way down to "Man, leg-hump you!" I was quite taken aback by your brutish language you big gorilla. [wipes brow and fans self]

Well I just... I never!

So anyway, just go to 'edit post' and add at the end, "This film was directed by Martin Scorsese, longtime champion of film preservation" and bam(!), you're good as gold.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Bill, I've been avoiding this post for about a month now because I hadn't yet seen Shutter Island. I finally saw it over the weekend, and though I'm at work now and have no time to offer a proper comment, I will try to contextualize my appreciation of Scorsese as a filmmaker. I can't be classified as a good and true Carrier of the Water, but I also think that it would be foolish to write off Scorsese on the basis of what I see as a period of films which are largely less effective pictures, yet no less delirious in their form, than some of the Scorsese films I love.

What are the Scorsese films I love? If I'm completely honest, the one I love most, the one I return to more than any other, is his familial documentary ItalianAmerican. But let's just say that's an atypical film (for now) and a perverse choice on my part for this discussion.

What else then? How about Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, New York, New York, The King of Comedy, The Age of Innocence, Life Lessons, The Last Temptation of Christ, half of GoodFellas, two-thirds of Casino, ALL of Kundun, his beautiful movie docs A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies and My Voyage to Italy, the Dylan doc No Direction Home, and of his recent DiCaprio period, The Aviator? I have some reservations about Casino, and major ones re GoodFellas, but the rest of these movies seem to me shot through with the kind of thrilling "movieish"-ness that makes Scorsese a consistently compelling director even when his movies aren't so good.

So what would make my not-so-good list? Well, I "like" Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore even as I realize that for me it seems somewhat dated and hamstrung by the director's attempt to graft his fevered directorial impulses onto a story that seems to beg for a more inquisitive touch. (I will qualify this by saying I haven't seen it in many years.) The Last Waltz is a moment in time for which I have admiration, even though it doesn't move me. After Hours always struck me as Scorsese's "doodle," though I've lately wanted to check it out again. The Color of Money is shockingly dull-- if you're looking for evidence of a Scorsese sell-out, best to start here. Cape Fear isn't a bad place to look either-- for all its formal noir atmosphere, the movie seems weirdly misjudged and out of control, not to mention deeply unpleasant. And while I'm no fan of either The Departed or Gangs of New York, the latter showing its seams like no other movie MS has ever made, they at least never bored me. The same cannot be said, however, for Bringing Out the Dead, which I know has its defenders, but to me is Scorsese's most debilitating failure-- all the style in the world cannot enliven the numbing construction of the story or its essential tawdriness. It just felt like the director (and screenwriter)'s attempt to connect with a past vitality that, given the evidence of the trajectory of films that have come since, has long since dissipated.

As for Raging Bull, I've never loved it, merely admired it, though I did just recently buy the Blu-ray, so if ever there were a time to revisit in adulthood a work that never moved me as a young and far more strident and undeveloped man, it seems it would be now with this one.

I haven't even mentioned Shutter Island yet, and now I gotta go... But I'll be back!