Friday, May 28, 2010
Cast: Leonardo Di Caprio, Mark Ruffalo, Sir Ben Kingsley, Max Von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley
Director: Martin Scorsese
Runtime: 138 min.
Verdict: A masterful thriller you should see. And one you should abhor for its absolute immorality.
Genre: Thriller, Mystery, Crime, Drama
This is a film I need to dive deep into to and there is no way to discuss Shutter Island without revealing the plot details, and of course the big ending. I shall try my absolute best to refrain from spilling but nevertheless, consider this as a SPOILER WARNING!! Of course, the spoilers lay deep within the passage below with alerts, and I believe you could read the rest of it.
Here’s how it goes.
It is only moments into the film, the over-the-top foghorn blaring ominously as the Paramount logo settles into place, and I knew I was already within the film. You miss those pure genre exercises, where the film existed purely in the movie-world and so commanded the audacity to soar beyond its running time and shadow its more real elements – its opening credits. One is reminded immediately of the Indiana Jones films, of those classic horror films where such an audio-visual choice brought two very opposite reactions within us – (a) Immediately pull us within the tale (b) Make us aware we are watching a tale. It is that classic feeling of neither-land we all refer to as the movie experience, when we all fondly remember Friday night bonanzas. The background score is not in the background anymore, for it is least bothered. It is all fictional, and as a regular movie-goer, we would immediately, sub-consciously understand everything is going to be in good fun. It is part of a secret pact of movie-watching, and makes movie-watching as much of a psychological wonder as anything else. Dear reader, I often seek the help of music to capture the exact emotions I would’ve felt during watching a movie, so that I’m more in command of the point I seek to make. And presently I’m finding the score behind the glorious opening from The Shining much more than merely helpful, which, in case you haven’t ever listened to, could be found here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6EdPeVUhxk). I think you have a fair idea of the emotions at hand.
Shutter Island plays like that score – loud and clear and ominous. I mean, Ominous. Come to think of it, OMINOUS. I could now fool around with the font size, but I guess you’ve more or less got the point. A thick fog covers the opening frame. A ferry wades through it. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Mr. DiCaprio) and his sidekick Chuck (Mr. Ruffalo) are on it, the ferry to Shutter Island, and dark clouds are all around. The score is still blaring. You might be a cinephile, with thousands of movies nested inside your memory, but you still wouldn’t think of The Fog. When you see the Island for the first time, you know the film has already established itself in tone. You are already sold. I was. That, reader, is the mark of a craftsman. A master craftsman. And Shutter Island finds him at the absolute peak of his craft, where his exaggerated aesthetic couldn’t be put to better use.
I say that because much of Shutter Island is a matter of perspectives, we might even say exaggerated perspectives, and I don’t think there’s another filmmaker alive who is better at putting us within the protagonist than Martin Scorsese. Michael Haneke sure does come real close, but most others (even the brilliant ones) simply resort to the script or building every character completely wherein we’re empathizing with everybody resulting in much more of an objective narrative. Taxi Driver might be the greatest perspective film alright, but consider for a moment the genius of Goodfellas, and how efficiently we jump from character to character and switch to each of the individual’s view of the world. Martin Scorsese does it most subtly, for he doesn’t resort to the obviousness of perspective shots, but instead relies on editing. That way, there is a glorious externalization of the perspective, where support characters are, within every dramatic situation, edited out into the periphery. The protagonist is always surrounded, and the support characters, although feeling like real people, assume a certain degree of, how do I put it, individuality of a third-person. A certain degree of opacity results. They are not stock, they are not stereotypes, they are all individuals, yet they all remain they.
It is fascinating, on how these movies work over us, and how simple editing choices, coupled with screenwriting/narrative archetypes bring out the desired reaction out of us. Consider for a moment the brilliant opening act, which does what the opening of a genre film ought to do, and that is to establish the film, its premise and its basic dynamics.
Allow me to lay the problem statement straight, and that would be to establish within us - Teddy and his sidekick Chuck are on the ferry to Shutter Island as ominous clouds loom large. How does it go about it? For that, allow me to pull out some excerpts by means of some frames, and then we shall see the filmmaking choices, the resultant illusion, and the subsequent reaction (My dear Reader, I assume you will watch the film or already have, because there is a greater joy than experiencing an illusion. That is to understand how the hell it worked. I have Alfred Borden and Robert Angier and David Bordwell to vouch for that. These are but 36 frames, and at 23.something fps for over 5 minutes, this is the best approximation I could manage. Now look how information is shrewdly passed out to us, and how carefully choreographed and edited the entire opening act is. Allow me to provide for a commentary.)
Setting the time period.
Setting the atmosphere.
We see somebody’s posterior.
Turns out, it is Leonardo Dicaprio’s character. He is introduced.
He is being established. He is the first person we meet, these are close-ups, and there’s nothing more effective. As audiences, we’re fresh, and extreme close-ups and perspective shots take us real close to him. Still the character is an object and still we are looking at him.
Still looking at him, and since we have caught him in this real personal moment (someone throwing up down the toilet) is a pretty effective way of familiarizing.
Here we need to give the actor the full credit. Mr. Caprio is a pretty effective actor when it comes to an intense, almost manic rage. He always feels pretty wound up, that aggression always floating on the surface, his eyes blinking and squinting all the time. We always feel as if we know the person Mr. Caprio is playing because there is little that is deceitful about his ways. His mannerisms are all exaggerated, he is loud. As I say, it is all on the surface, and I believe that makes him one of the easier actors to establish when it comes to perspective, for we don’t really doubt or suspect his intentions all that much, unless of course the plot makes it necessary. Instinctively, he always feels like the good guy.
He walks out…..
...And we see his POV shot of a guy standing.
It is the Mark Ruffalo character, pretty easy actor himself. You talk to Mr. Ruffalo, you speaking to a really nice considerate man 9 times out of 10.
The Caprio character eases besides him, into the fore of the frame, pushing him into the background. We learn here, by way of dialog, he is the boss, that he is a marshal, and his name is Teddy. The Ruffalo character is Chuck.
Conversation happens. Now here lies the superb effectiveness of the editing, and more importantly the framing. As the scene goes, Chuck is pushed to the background and often out of focus, and Teddy is brought into the foreground.
Teddy, during the conversation says his wife’s dead, and as he ponders and remembers her, we immediately cut to a memory of her. As you would see in the next few frames it is a typical postcard husband and wife. She bringing the clichéd tie as her man goes out to bring food to the table. It is not just typical, it is archetypical.
We see a close-up of her.
And we cut to a close-up of Teddy. Our fitting in his shoes is complete. We are one.
Back to present tense, and back to the composition. Teddy makes the front plane of the frame and Chuck the plane that is behind. And Teddy is to the right, and by the rules of framing, we always are drawn first that is to the right.
Even when we have the shot from Chuck’s angle, he is never really facing us. The orientation of the choreography is the key, just like the simple positional dynamics in theatre. It is all oriented towards Teddy and our senses grab it.
Chuck looking at Teddy, Teddy smugly looking away. Classic master-apprentice-dynamic posturing and framing.
By now, it is firmly established within us the two are a team. Chuck is not a stranger anymore, although we know next to nothing about him. The truth is he is so much towards the periphery, and we are so busy with other stuff, we are least bothered by him. He is just part of the background.
And that is when Shutter Island makes its first appearance. The foghorn blares. Till now the close-up has been the sole privilege of Teddy. Now Shutter Island gets one too, and it immediately marks itself as an intimidating foe, much like King Kong’s Skull Island. The dynamics has been established, part by editing, part by script, and now everything inside of Shutter Island is part of that larger dynamics. We shall meet people, and they shall be judged by that larger perspective. They are all, well, Shutter Island.
And Teddy, and Teddy only, sees the ominous clouds. We and Teddy are one, and everything else is just everything else. After every little discovery on the island we shall get an exclusive close-up (reaction shot) of Teddy, in a way sealing the perspective. It is classic movie tradition, first to show a whole lot of stuff and end it with a close-up, so that we audiences, hungry for perspective quickly hang on to that person.
Reader, you would appreciate the nuance of this editing much more if I present to you a scenario wherein the Ruffalo character is not a guy, but a girl, played by Angelina Jolie. Or let us keep it a guy, and let him be played by Kevin Spacey. And let the conversation be edited not by a two-shot but by a shot-reverse-shot routine. Owing to the close-ups, the other character would assume a personality we would be consciously aware of, for singular presence on the screen would register on our senses, and as a result we would be wondering about his intentions. You would want a practical example? Look how brilliantly the film develops over this established premise and dynamics when we first meet Dr. Cawley (Sir Kingsley). It is a classic scene of establishing the myth and mystery and the detective and the wall he is up against. Again, close-ups and careful spatial orchestration does it for us. I feel compelled to grab a few frames and lay out another commentary, but I would want you to discover it for yourself.
And I watch Shutter Island with that mix of fascination and wonder I would watch a film like The Third Man or The Maltese Falcon. I’m a viewer aware that he has been transported into this mysterious alternate world and I’m enjoying it. And as I see the end of it, I ask of myself – Why was the film asking so much of my emotional investment? Oh, do not be mistaken. You shall not feel much beyond the mystery and suspense, but you’re growingly aware the film isn’t content with being a pure fiction. It instead is trying to raise the emotional stakes, pull in a few manipulative tricks and sell itself as a tragedy. You would be reminded of A Beautiful Mind when you should be reminded of The Usual Suspects or Session 9. It is all strangely uneasy, and needless. And when the big twist at the end finally reveals itself with the standard exposition, you really are repulsed. The transformation from the viewer who was enjoying the film to the one repelled by its twisted morality is complete. Let me give you just an example of its ugliness – consider Raiders of the Lost Ark ending with a sequence from the Holocaust.
And here’s where you ask – would you choose to hail Martin Scorsese as an artist in the present tense anymore? He used to be, great many years back, when even his exaggerated aesthetic would serve to reveal a vulnerable truth. But now, you tend to miss Paul Schrader. I accept it dear reader, that the Scorsese of today is way different and way more detached from his work than the Scorsese we all worship. That artist is history, and I have already learned to live with that fact. Yet, in Gangs of New York, in The Aviator there’s a certain truth to it all. The closure we gain at the end, we know, is not designed by a screenwriter with ambitions of a puppeteer, but somebody who actually empathized with his characters and understood their world.
But not here, not on Shutter Island. This is the place I always hoped Scorsese would never venture into, and now he has, the morally dubious waters of kitsch, and Shutter Island is rife with the ugliest form of it, employed merely to raise the stakes, to pull our emotional chords and to manipulate our feelings. The film isn’t sad about its tragedy, it rather embraces its tragedy as a crowning jewel, it relishes it because it knows that would make it more immediate in nature. And that ways this is just about as immoral a film as Kites. As Crash. As Hotel Rwanda. As Schindler’s List.
Oh, the thing is though, Shutter Island is worse. But the kitsch first. Marshal Teddy Daniels has a military past and he always feels pretty wound up. Reasons? (a) His wife died in a building fire, and (b) He SAW REAL BAD STUFF IN WORLD WAR II. You know, dear reader, the war past and the horrors of war is so much of a cliché that it is ripe enough to be promoted into the ranks of the kitsch. But more importantly, for smart filmmakers, you never ever show the memories of the war. We never saw what Travis Bickle saw, though he was a war vet. What’s more, Martin Scorsese constructs the most aesthetic concentration camp ever, thank you very much CGI, and the sight of the stacked corpses is so wonderfully painful it might make for a nice little painting. It is all shouting – My my!! The horrors of war!!! And what’s the BIG horror? Teddy Daniels and his men lined up several unarmed Nazi soldiers in-charge of a Nazi concentration camp, pinned them against the barbed wire and shot them. It is the most cringe-worthy shot Martin Scorsese has ever taken in his entire career, where aesthetic sense replaces plain logic. The soldiers are standing against the wall, and the camera starts moving from left to right and the soldiers are shot in that order too. It is utterly preposterous, and utterly immoral. First, it shouldn’t have been there in a film as this. Second, if it was horror and an unspeakable war crime, shoot it like that. See, a filmmaker cannot have it both ways. You just cannot seek the privilege for having weighty content as this and then seek the liberty to shoot it as per your ridiculous aesthetic whims and fancies.
(Here is the shot for you. You could use the aid of the poles to get a sense of how the frame is moving.)
(Reader, I have been trying to put it off for long now, but I feel to make my point I got to discuss the details of the ending. So yes, THIS IS THE PART WITH THE SPOILERS AND YOU SHOULD STOP READING!!)
But all that is nothing before the big tragedy at the end, which stinks of artifice. This is a tragedy that has been designed with the sole purpose of sounding horrific. I wouldn’t want to reveal it to you, but if you choose to find it yourself, you might take the help of the usual sources (hint: plot details-Wikipedia). It stinks of design, as if the screenwriters and the director had a team come up with multiple endings, and they in turn had to choose the most shocking and devious of it all. I haven’t read Mr. Lehane’s novel and so, wouldn’t want to prosecute him, though I would like to remark that the novel came out in 2003 and Memento came out in 2000.
And why is Shutter Island worse than a film like Crash, and on its own terms, a failure, when it could’ve been a masterpiece in the same breath as The Third Man? That is because it is just plain ineffective with its tragedy, with having little to no idea how to manipulate us about its tragedy. It is a failure because its emotional epicenter, its emotional fulcrum is simply an archetype of tragic melodrama. There is hardly a shred of truth to it. The tragedy involves his wife, the wife he so dearly loves, but why are we feeling nothing of it. Teddy sees illusions of her, and the dreams hardly feel true. They feel designed after a preliminary class of Freudian mumbo-jumbo, with one-to-one mapping to reality. The dreams are designed to pose for as evidence, not as moments of true emotion so that we could be hooked onto the dynamics between the husband and wife. Consider Memento, where the little moments, true moments, are enough to fill us. The tragedy, when comes, just feels like a bit of bad news and no more. We’re left with an ugly taste, and I said reader, it is like watching a mishmash of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Schindler’s List.
You know, what is the real tragedy at the end of it all? Martin Scorsese once dug fearlessly into himself to reveal the vulnerabilities of male psyche. Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull were so honest-to-God true. And here he is, dishing out psychological craptalk ala Alfred Hitchcock. Oh how wonderful it would have been had he gone the way of Samuel Fuller. Consider Shock Corridor, a film not talking but revealing so much about the male psyche. The problem with Shutter Island is that its shock isn’t fearless, it just feels calibrated. Even Cape Fear felt true, because it never took the help of outside world. This one does, with its Nazi imagery, and with its flashback, which might have been avoided. Here is a film I enjoyed watching. Here is a film you should watch too, and then shrug. And then watch a little movie called Session 9. It is a brilliant film, by a brilliant and compassionate craftsman named Brad Anderson, who has made two real fine thrillers (The Machinist, Session 9, and a real solid one (Transsiberian). Let me tell you, we will hear plenty more from that fine filmmaker.
Note: As good old movie watching rules apply, don’t supply information when the film isn’t. All the evidence within the film point towards one resolution and one resolution only. And that resolution is laid by the film in plain view.