Friday, February 19, 2010

SHUTTER ISLAND: A He Said, She Said Reel Dialogue

JM: We’ve been waiting for it for months and months, and it’s finally here. K, it’s time to talk about Shutter Island.

KM: Scorsese, as always, in near perfect form. Shutter is not the utter brilliance of The Departed, but it certainly is dazzling cinema and reaches into further depths than even my favorite aforementioned film did.

JM: It is about as different from Departed as any movie made by the same director can be. The odd thing is that Shutter is just as highly stylized, but not in the slam-bang variety of The Departed. Scorsese is reaching for a style more sumptuous and subtle. In the same way, this film is simultaneously Scorsese's greatest departure and one that perfectly fits his thematic obsessions.

Now, before we go much further, I have to say that we are dealing with a major event. A new Scorsese film is reason to celebrate the cinema once again. The beginning-of-the-year placement is odd for any Scorsese film in recent years, and, indeed, Shutter Island was intended to be released last October. It got pushed out, I believe, because it was going to be a sure-fire Best Picture nominee, especially within the ten-film system, and since Scorsese won for his previous picture (the aforementioned Departed), the studio figured he wouldn't win twice in a row and bowed out to avoid the pesky Oscar promotion dollars.

KM: I will still never understand why a studio moves a picture because it could be a Best Picture nominee. That seems really off and ridiculous to me, but maybe that is a discussion for another time.

JM: Now, with all that said, I can say this: Shutter Island is obviously the first great film of 2010…

KM: Agreed!

JM: But, of course, that is almost damning with faint praise in a season where literally nothing comes close to touching greatness. But Shutter will reach far beyond the first quarter of the year. The film is already polarizing critics and will remain a major part of the critical conversation for the remainder of this year. It is that kind of seminal achievement, I believe.

Continue reading after the jump...

KM: To be fair, we should disclose that Scorsese is by far your favorite director and that probably there is very little he could ever do wrong in a film, right?

JM: Yes...full disclosure: Scorsese is my greatest idol and inspiration, if that is an academic or sophisticated enough way to put it. His films vibrate with passion and intensity, and he brings the screen to life in a way I truly believe we have never seen and likely will never see again. In my view, Scorsese is the greatest filmmaker of all-time. But I also hold him to a high standard. I'm not gonna walk around touting New York, New York or Gangs of New York as masterworks. But Scorsese has entered an artistic flourish in the last several years, and Shutter Island is another extension of that extraordinary track record.

KM: Again, agreed. Scorsese is easily one of the best filmmakers of all-time if not the best.

JM: Shutter is bound to be discussed and revisited again and again and again. The subtleties that Scorsese, his long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and writer Laeta Kalogridis achieve with the synthesis of their gifts is extraordinary, and, in all honesty, way too layered and complex for me to fully encapsulate in one viewing...or one review.

KM: To me, one of the most important and appealing aspects of Shutter is the dynamic duo. Film can do no better than a Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio pairing. And for all Shutter's lovely grainy grip, DiCaprio is what blew me away. He is, quite simply, amazing in this film -- raw, instinctual, fierce.

JM: DiCaprio, for all his accolades, is actually underappreciated as an actor. In addition to his other Oscar nominations, he should've been nominated for his work in Titanic and should've won the Oscar for his brilliant work in Scorsese's The Aviator. But I think I can say with utmost confidence that his performance in Shutter Island may actually be the best, most wrenching and difficult work he has ever done.

KM: Agreed. But I will say, for all the glory to behold in Shutter, it is not without some issues. For as gripping and “silver-stabbing” as the film is, I am disappointed that I had nearly the whole film entirely figured out from the trailer and then had it all confirmed for me within the first 15 minutes of the film. I love to figure out a good puzzle, to crack the mystery, but I want to have to work at it. I am not sure if Scorsese wanted us to know "the answer" that early or not, but I have to believe I am not some amazing genius...others are going to figure it out immediately, too. Right?

JM: Subsequent viewings will give more shape to my thoughts on the film's greatest virtues and nagging flaws, so I hesitate to go too deeply into either realm. But the work must be respected, plain and simple. And I have a feeling this is one of those films that demands to be seen multiple times. Sure, if you assume the film will be a hugely mind-bending supernatural ride (which many will, considering the tone of the film's trailer), it might be easy to say that the film is too predictable, that one could guess the "secret" from a mile away. By that standard, yes, that could be considered a flaw. But Scorsese and Kalogridis (and, originally, Dennis Lehane, who wrote the novel on which the film is based) are chasing after something more. Shutter Island poses questions that run deep, way deeper than any surface-level mind-bender.

KM: Scorsese is not in for the sucker punches or the easy messages. You are right. In retrospect, I get it now. It's not about me figuring it out. It's about the journey.

JM: As an auteur, Scorsese's obsessions run deep into themes of guilt and torment. A lot of people don't realize this is a guy who entered the Seminary before shifting his focus and becoming a filmmaker. And Catholic guilt plays a huge role in many of Scorsese's films, especially the earliest ones. I am actually a little surprised we didn't get more religious touches in Shutter Island, especially since it would be a welcome inclusion in a film that takes place in 1950s Massachusetts, and a film that is, very clearly, designed as a throwback to a couple of different genres. It is a challenge to make an old-fashioned thriller that fuses many different genres (among them mystery, psychological thriller, horror, and a lot of old-school detective procedurals) that still pulsates with the urgency of the "now," but leave it to Marty.

KM: I will say, though, that to me, his ending is pure movie magic. I do not want to go into it, but the "truth" about what is going on at Shutter Island is not what captivated me. With the exception of a few minor details, like I said, I had it all figured out. However, the very last exchange between DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo, who stars as DiCaprio’s partner...that was the beautiful twist and haunting "surprise" for me. There was more resonance in DiCaprio's last line and more pain from me to him than in any other part of Shutter. And that says a lot because the film is intense, gripping, and riveting throughout.

JM: You nailed it. The real secret is, as you referenced, the film's last scene, right down to its last line and the subsequent closing visual. It is the psychological torment and emotional turmoil that interests Scorsese more than any plot twists or shocks.

KM: I do wonder how audiences will react. The film's trailer sells it as a supernatural horror film, but it really is all a psychological drama, an emotional journey for DiCaprio’s character as well as for the audience. You have to invest in this film, invest your heart and mind. So true what you said earlier about Marty and guilt-ridden angst and torment. The ride is an emotional, wrenching rollercoaster. I do think the "ride" went on a bit long at times, trying to coax out too much suspense and tension when it was really time to knuckle down and begin the reveal/revelation.

JM: Audiences will be tough. I think the film will be number one this weekend, and then probably take a hit in its second week because it doesn't deliver what anyone would be expecting. But the fascinating aspect of the film's accomplishment is that it seamlessly blends many popular genres into a psychological fever dream starring a hugely respected actor, and audiences will pack theaters and then be challenged by the power of what this film is really about.

KM: I personally was thrilled it was not a horror film. Shutter is too much of an instant classic study in psychology to be locked into such a pedestrian genre. I do think when audiences do not get what they expect, they will decide to plunk down even more ridiculous dollars for something that is what they expect and can pat themselves on the back for -- the blue football rah-rah game of Avatar. That would be sad, for they will be missing the deeper intricacies and (I would argue) importance of a film like Shutter Island.

JM: We could easily go on forever, and likely will in future discussions. The film is worth it. With Shutter Island, we are dealing with the latest masterpiece from America’s greatest filmmaker, a film whose intricacies and subtleties cannot possibly be fully realized, understood, and absorbed in one sitting. This is the kind of film that will take several viewings -- 4 or 5, I’d suspect -- before its full impact can be appreciated. And with that in mind, we need to make a date to revisit the film and submit further analysis at that time. For now, though, due to the constraints of conventional film criticism, let’s assign an “initial viewing” grade. I think Shutter Island will endure as a classic, and I slap it with an unequivocal A.

KM: I second the idea of multiple viewings because as we discussed here, I started to think through a few of my slight qualms I had with the film. Shutter is already a classic and I embrace it with an A-.


Anonymous said...

I have been looking forward to this for a while, especially after The Departed. I suppose delaying it may have been a bit of trying to avoid the massive amount of films released towards Christmas also.

From this it sounds like I won't be disappointed.

Is it anything like Zodiac if you've seen that. Mark Ruffalo is also great in that.

Aaron Thomae said...

I've been waiting for this film to come out for looks incredible.I really enjoyed reading your blog, please read mine and let me know what you think!

Keep up the good work!

J McKiernan said...

Not really comparable to Zodiac, in all honesty, though that is a very good film. This one is very much a throwback, and yet its themes are timeless and powerful and its tools -- as is typically the case for Scorsese -- break new visual ground with each flickering frame.

In October, the film would do similar business to what it will do in February. It was more a "saving money" decision rather than a "making money" decision on the part of Paramount, since had the film opened in October, it would likely be in the midst of a costly Oscar campaign right now that it had no chance of winning. Not that the film isn't stronger or more interesting than literally 90% of this year's nominees -- it's that Oscar ain't gonna award Scorsese for two consecutive films, especially since this one is such an oddity compared to his usual fare.

You won't be disappointed if you ignore the trailer and let the film speak to you. Otherwise your expectations might not be met. It is a much different film than many expect...far more challenging, but far more rewarding. And again, MUST SEE MORE THAN ONCE! It downright demands repeat viewings.

Personally, I can't wait to chew on it more.

J McKiernan said...

By the way, Aaron, thanks for your kind words and I WILL be visiting that blog of yours!

Let's keep this discussion going...Shutter Island is going to be a hot topic on this blog for quite some time.

Anonymous said...

I've just found out this doesn't come out in the UK till mid march. I'm just going to have to sit it out for a bit longer...

K McKiernan said...


It is totally worth the wait! Come talk to us once you see it.