THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!
SHUTTER ISLAND (2010)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
"A walking cliché with a plot so stupid that I could never, ever bite "
Let me be upfront. I love Scorsese. In my eyes, the man can do no wrong (or so I thought). And for the most part during his forty-year career, the dude has made some of the best movies of all time and had few if any missteps. A regular steady Eddie. Likewise, Leo DiCaprio has impressed the hell out of me. He’s morphed from that skinny Titanic kid into an old school serious actor, slipping into roles and tackling interesting and mostly diverse characters. Sure, he sports the same little facial hair in every single movie no matter the period (does that make it his trademark like B. Reynolds’s mustache?), but he does a good job of disappearing into the roles (or so I thought). He becomes a character, not just an actor. So with all my man love, where’s the beef with Shutter Island, a massive box office hit and Scorsese’s ode to Hitchcock?
Shutter Island stands as the one true disappointment in the Scorsese/DiCaprio marriage. It’s a walking cliché with a plot so stupid that I could never, ever bite. Scorsese intended to make a classy horror film filled with rich colors, excellent clothing, great sets, and classy music. He accomplished that feat, but that’s all. Style over substance. Flash over flesh. Shutter Island presents itself as important, as if filled with actual mystery and intrigue like a true Hitchcock film, which is part of the problem. It’s not a Hitchcock movie. Hitchcock’s main characters were normal guys stuck in abnormal situations. They were likeable, identifiable, and most of all, authentic. Whenever one of his characters questioned their sanity or the sanity of a situation, it’s because his normal world had already been defined so clearly. Thus it avoided many trappings of formula horror. Shutter Island though never establishes any of that as it begins with a ferry emerging from a thick fog into a world that never seems real. And if the world of the movie never feels authentic, then the central character stands as good as a chance at feeling real as a goddamn veggie burger. Fake is fake.
Now I can imagine some readers bitching that this ain’t a Hitchcock film. True, but it wants to achieve that level of classic. Even Leo attempts a Hitchcock-like character (something close to Jimmy Stewart’s Scotty from Vertigo who’s a haunted man who sees things) in his performance as Marshall Teddy Daniels. He tries to create a man who wants justice. He’s supposed to be a hard-nosed fed haunted by the horrors of his past, a man on a mission to discover the truth behind the mysterious lighthouse, to find patient number 67, and blah, blah, blah. The character never dives any deeper than that brief character description. It just doesn’t work. Leo’s performance feels forced, feels acted. Shutter Island is about the vague differences between reality and fiction, but portraying nuts isn’t an easy thing to do, especially not when you don’t give a shit about the character to begin with.
Teddy’s hunt for his evil side, Andrew Laeddis, gives the film a purpose, a drive to seek revenge. (SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) When the image of Laeddis comes alive in one of the 1,252 dreams sequences in the film, it speaks to the lack of originality with his zipper scarred face ala Frankenstein’s monster and his disagreeable negative tone. The movie tries so hard to be mysterious and coy that nothing of true interest ever develops. Part of the problem is that it lives in flashbacks where Teddy is understandably haunted by the death of his drowned children. If anything drives me nuts, its flashbacks, and boy does Shutter Island have those. Not only do we get the bits with his dead wife and the missing woman, but also the many repeated scenes dealing the horrors of WWII. I get it that those scenes are intended to illustrate Teddy’s mental condition, but a little goes a long ways. There’s a thing called subtly. Use it. And the by the way, if nearly everything that occurred on the island is a figment of Teddy’s disillusioned mind, then what the f*ck did I watch? A dream? If I want that I'll pop in Dream a Little Dream (joke).
Of course, my biggest bitch comes from the whole plot being utterly ludicrous. I'm supposed to believe that the people in charge of an entire insane asylum convince everyone to play along with an ex-US Marshall and pretend that he’s investigating a crime. Really? You’re going to get a doc to play along as his partner, train patients and staff to deliver lines, and oh, you planned all of this during hurricane season? I’m all for suspending disbelief, but damn, man, that’s just too much. At the same time, Shutter Island is so filled with McGuffins that by the time the picture ends, I didn't care. And why would I with all the rehashed ideas in here. Double wake-up dream sequences, dead people who open their eyes. freaky ass ladies who whisper shhhhh, and patients telling people to run. Really? I expect that in standard issue horror. Not from a master filmmaker.
I loved the idea of Scorsese and Leo making a horror movie in an insane asylum. Great, perfect, but do something more with it than provide a trick ending. If the ending is supposed to draw debate (where Teddy is now Laeddis and he’s either still insane or cured when he elects for the lobotomy when he says, “Which would be worse: to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?”) who cares. Perhaps if the movie had truly been about discovering the horrors of the island it might be been something more. Felt more authentic. But the movie is a trick. Leave plots like that for dude’s like M. Night to ruin.
Disagree? Buy the DVD and discover for yourself.