Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Out on Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese's latest effort, Shutter Island, has people talking, mainly about the solution to the mystery introduced in the opening scenes, a solution some see coming while others don't, judging from conversations I've read online so far. I'd say the ending doesn't matter as much as the film itself but that the film itself isn't good enough to carry the weight of an ending that doesn't matter as much. And it's not because Scorsese does a bad job of directing, in fact, I'd say he does an excellent job. Robert Richardson does an superb job framing the shots Scorsese wants and Thelma Schoonmaker does her usual level best at editing it all together in a quickly paced but not frenetic fashion. The performances are solid as well with everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo, as the two Federal Marshalls investigating the mystery, to Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow, as doctors at the island psychiatric hospital, turning in good, strong work. The problem, I think, is in the screenplay. There's simply too much of it.

Brevity, the old adage says, is the soul of wit. I would argue that, in a roundabout way, it's the soul of mystery too. It's not because if a mystery takes too long the audience starts looking for solutions, that's a part of the fun. It's because in a mystery there isn't much in the way of character development or story. Dramas have story, mysteries have plotting. A drama, like The Godfather, is about a character, Michael, and his story. It can go on for hours and multiple movies because the point isn't to figure out a solution, or have one revealed, but to delve deep into Michael's soul, or lack thereof. In a mystery, like Witness for the Prosecution, the point isn't to learn all about Sir Wilfred Robarts, but see if he can solve the mystery, or have it revealed to him. So if the plotting in a mystery, along with the requisite red herrings, goes on too long it starts to feel like just so much padding. The mistake of Shutter Island is that it thinks it's a drama instead of a mystery. I have even read reviews and comments in which it is stated that perhaps Scorsese didn't even care if the solution is let out of the bag early. If so then that lends support to my theory that this movie is mistaking what it is and what it's supposed to be.

Still, that confusion does not produce a bad movie. Visually striking and expertly paced it is, in fact, a very good movie. But for a mystery to examine character like a drama the mystery has to subvert itself to the character. Take Vertigo for example. It's a classic example of a drama that explores the psychological depths of its protagonist, John "Scotty" Ferguson as played by Jimmy Stewart, by involving him in a mystery. He is involved in the mystery by simply following a woman (Kim Novak) around and eventually starting up a relationship with her. The mystery is merely a way into Scotty's obsessions, which is the real subject at hand much like Close Encounters of the Third Kind is about Roy Neary's (Richard Dreyfuss) quest for meaning in his life and finding his place in the universe. That drama's "way in" is alien visitation. But Shutter Island has no such mission for its main character and thus, in continuing on and on with excessive plotting, starts to drain the life out of all the good things that are there. Let's use Vertigo once again to go at this from a different angle.

Imagine Vertigo starting at the point where Scotty has his nervous breakdown after the woman he was following falls to her death at the mission tower. Further imagine the movie runs for two and half hours from that point on as Scotty tries to solve the mystery of this new woman, Judy, who seems like a ghost from his past. And all of the buildup before the breakdown of knowing Scotty and who he is and his search for a connection to another wanderer? All of that, all of what came before, will simply be told in flashback at the end for five minutes. If you've seen Shutter Island that will make sense to you and if not, sorry for the confusion.

Martin Scorsese knows direction like geese know migration - it's in his blood, in his genes, it's who he is. There's never a point in Shutter Island where the viewer feels there is an unsteady hand at the helm and Scorsese draws us in quickly and efficiently. His skill continues to hold us there for quite some time but soon, even with all of his talent, we start to see the same trees, the same footprints, the same broken twigs and realize we're going in circles. From the opening shot of a ferry emerging from the mist there is a heavy sense of a story and characters moving relentlessly towards a doomed inevitability. By the end we're relieved that the doom has finally arrived but only in the abstract. Only because it has taken so long to get there with little in the way of anything about the characters developing into anything more than pieces of a puzzle. It wants to be a drama and a mystery and spends so much time trying to meld the two it ends up being neither. In the end, I half-heartedly recommend it but only for those interested in seeing the technical virtuosity of a now seasoned master of the cinema. Outside of that, I'd say you're better off staying on the mainland.