Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Shutter Island - The Spoiler Review

Yesterday, I wrote my review of Shutter Island, but wasn’t able to go as deep into the detail of the film as I wanted to. If I did, I would have given the whole movie away, and that isn’t fair to people who haven’t seen the movie. So, if that’s what you want go read that review. Then, after you have seen the film, come back and read this. This one has tons of spoilers. So now that we’ve got rid of everyone who HAS NOT seen the film, let’s discuss the movie with no reason to hold back the secrets of the film.

As I said in my other review, I think Shutter Island is the type of film that works better when you know the secrets of the movie, then when you don’t. Having read the book, I knew what was coming, so I was able to let the movie wash over me. Instead of focusing on the plot – or what the movie is about – I was able to concentrate on Scorsese’s storytelling – or how the film is about what it is about. That is where Scorsese’s true talents as a filmmaker have always lied.

So, let’s just get this out of the way here and now, and come out with the movies big secret – Leonardo DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels is not really a US Marshall sent to Shutter Island to investigate a missing patient. He is the patient, and everything that happens in the movie has been set up for his benefit. Unable to deal with his own guilt over what happened – that after the war, guilty about what happened over there, he came back a changed man, who was unable to see that his wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) was a damaged woman. When she burned down their apartment building, he ignored the signs, and simply moved to his family to a lake house. One day after returning home from catching a criminal (he was, at that point, an actual US Marshall), he discovers that his wife has drowned their three kids in the lake behind their house. Mad with grief, Daniels kills his wife.

Daniels is unable to deal with these events in his life, so he has constructed an elaborate fantasy world while being imprisoned on Shutter Island. He is Teddy Daniels, US Marshall out to find the missing patient, Rachel Solondo, in the mental hospital where he is convinced they are playing the same sort of games, carrying out the same sort of experiments, as the Nazis did. His doctor, Mark Ruffalo, is his partner, and the head doctors, Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow, are evil men doing the experiments. In reality, Kingsley and Ruffalo are trying to help “Daniels”. If they cannot get him to accept reality, thus curbing his violent tendencies (he lashes out at anyone who refers to him by his real name, or confronts him with the truth), then von Sydow wants to give him a lobotomy. To give him a sense of peace and calm in his world.

In many ways, I thought that Teddy Daniels resembled another famous Martin Scorsese character – Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. Both have recently returned from the war, and although we never find out what happened to Travis in Vietnam, we do not that the experience has scarred him for life. With Daniels, we do find out what is haunting him. At Dachau, he saw the worst of what men can do to other men. The commander of the prison camp tried to kill himself when the Americans arrived, but messed up. Instead of having a quick death, he slowly bled to death for more than an hour. None of the Americans wanted to end his misery. The Americans then lined up all the guards at the camp, and in a mesmerizing tracking shot by Scorsese, we see them mow them all down. According to Daniels, this wasn’t warfare, it was murder. So when Daniels returned from the war, his guilt was already causing him trouble getting back to a normal life. When his wife started showing signs of mental illness – he ignored them, which led directly to her killing their children. He is no unable to forgive himself for that – he blames himself for the death of his children, and the death of his wife.

Like Bickle, Daniels lives in a world that is entirely of his own making. Bickle sees himself as some sort of avenging angel, taking out the trash on the streets of New York. He could avoid the areas he goes to, but then, his fantasy world wouldn’t be the same. He needs the filth, to help his fantasy world along. Both men are capable of bursts of extreme violence, that manifest itself in different ways. When Bickle shoots up the whorehouse at the end of Taxi Driver, and unwittingly becomes a hero – which will simply feed his fantasy life well after the movie ends – he doesn’t do it simply to save Jodie Foster, like he convinces himself he is. He is doing it because of all that pent up violence that he needs to get out – and his first attempt to assassinate the Presidential candidate was thwarted, meaning he had to look for another outlet. Bickle would have fit right in with the inmates in Shutter Island. The “men of violence” that Max von Sydow says are his specialty.

Watching Shutter Island, we become aware right from the beginning, that we are seeing all the proceedings from Teddy’s point of view, and yet we are unaware that we really cannot trust his point of view. There is something off about everything he sees though. Critics who were distracted by the booming soundtrack, and the strange point of view shots from inanimate objects, the matching shots that Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson litter the movie with, I don’t think every really thought about WHY Scorsese was shooting the movie in this way.

We sense something is off because of the way everyone treats DiCaprio’s character, and yet we can never really pinpoint what exactly it is. Why is Mark Ruffalo always so calm with Daniels, always so willing to agree with him, and try to soothe him? Why does Ruffalo, a supposed US Marshall, struggle with a task as simple as taking his gun out of its holster? Why does John Carol Lynch, the Assistant Warden who greets the Marshalls on their arrival, seem to be putting on an act of niceness, instead of actually being nice? Why is Ben Kingsley so willing to put up with all the questions, and insinuations, that Daniels makes, so willing to allow himself to indulge Daniels questions, whereas von Sydow is a little more strict? Why does Ted Levine, in his one scene of the warden, seem to regard Daniels with utter and complete contempt? Why do the inmates all seem to regard Daniels with confusion, as if they know who he is? Why, after all the lectures about how tightly controlled Ward C is, are DiCaprio and Ruffalo able to wander right in, and why does it seem like the orderly is talking down to DiCaprio when he discovers that he beat up an inmate?

Of course, when the secret of the movie is revealed, we know why all of these characters react they way they do, and more. What we don’t know, or at least aren’t 100% sure of, is what in the movie actually happens, and what is mere fantasy on the part of DiCaprio’s characters. Obviously, the visit with Rachel 2 (Patricia Clarkson) is complete fantasy, as is DiCaprio seeing Ruffalo’s lifeless body on the jagged rocks below. But how about the scene where Ruffalo seems to feed DiCaprio’s paranoia, by suggesting that he was lured there as a trap? Would Ruffalo, who is a doctor trying to cure DiCaprio, really feed him line? Or would Kingsley really just try and confuse DiCaprio more by telling him that he showed up on the island by himself with no partner? Or is this all part of the fantasy that DiCaprio has structured for himself?

Like Bickle, by the end of the movie Daniels has chosen the easier way out. Bickle fully intended to die in that whorehouse, as is evidenced by the shot of him putting him bloody hand to his temple like a gun and pulling the trigger. It is his own bad luck that he survives. Daniels on the other hand, has chosen a life of blissful ignorance. Knowing full well that he cannot go back to pretending – to living in his fantasy world where he is still a hero, and not a grief stricken man, haunted by his own feelings on guilt for not having saved his wife and kids, and what he did in the war, he chooses to become a zombie. He acts like he has reverted back into the fantasy – which he knows will result in him getting a lobotomy – but he lets Ruffalo in on his secret when he says “This place had made me wonder if it’s better to live as a monster, or die like a hero”. He knows what is coming, and he has chosen the ignorance to the reality.

The mark of an auteur, to me anyway, is that a filmmaker can take pretty much any film and make it their own. Put their own authoritative stamp on the film. Scorsese has always been able to do this. Of course, it has caused for some of less successful films like Boxcar Bertha, New York, New York and Cape Fear, where Scorsese’s sentiments were not really in line with the movie, and at times, actually seemed to fight the narrative (although, I will say I prefer that to Scorsese films like The Color of Money, or even Kundun, where Scorsese seems to take himself out of the movie completely). One of the wonderful things about Shutter Island is that Scorsese fools you into thinking that he simply making a genre film. That he has decided to simply make homage to Hitchcock and film noir. It’s not really until the final scenes in the movie – perhaps the very last one, when DiCaprio delivers his very last line – that you realize just what a complex movie this really is. The film falls right in line with the other films of Scorsese’s career, which often are about men who do not really like themselves, and construct different ways of dealing with that. Not only Bickle in Taxi Driver, but Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, who is driven to violence by his sexual jealously, Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, who creates a world for himself where he is the celebrity he believes he is entitled to be, Henry Hill in GoodFellas, who hates himself for ratting on his friends, Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence, who denies himself what he wants most, Frank in Bringing Out the Dead, who thinks that if he just saves one person, he can save himself, Howard Hughes in The Aviator, who locks himself away from the world, and both Billy and Colin in The Departed, who move slowly toward their own doom. Hel, even Jesus Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ, fits here. It is not a stretch to say that many of these characters could, at some point after the movie ends (assuming they are alive of course), could end up in a mental hospital (in fact, in the Infernal Affairs trilogy, which The Departed was based on, the character that Damon is based on doesn’t get killed at the end of the film, and by the end of the trilogy, is in fact, in a mental hospital). Shutter Island, which has all the markings of a thriller, and works on that level as a great one, is not really about its thriller elements at all. It is about Teddy, and his slow dawning of realization of who he actually is – which is something he cannot deal with.

Many critics will, and have already, dismissed the movie as little more than genre piffle – even some of the critics who liked it. There will be some who chose to see it as little more than a well made genre film with an M. Night Shyamalan type twist at the end. And if you want to see the film that way, fine. But Shutter Island is a movie that simply expands in your mind after you are done watching it. If it doesn’t quite rank among the very best films of Scorsese’s career, that’s because Scorsese has made more masterpieces than any living filmmaking. I have a feeling however, that over time, critics will recognize Shutter Island for the great movie it is.

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