Monthly Archives: March 2010

Shutter Island

Not A Dog

I shouldn’t read reviews. Especially those in the SMH giving it 3 stars. I can’t remember the last time Martin Scorsese made a dog a of a film, even taking into consideration ‘The Departed’, so I really shouldn’t have just bypassed this movie. It’s surprisingly good.

Then again, it seems the SMH readers give this film 2 stars, so what hope is there really?

What’s Good About It

It’s good to see Martin Scorsese go back to a more kinetic style of shooting, with more modeled lights and cinematography. He was further away from his hallmark style in ‘The Departed’ with much flatter lighting in that one. This film is much more interesting to watch from a technical point of view as well as an artistic point of view.

The performances are generally good, but you expect that from a cast that includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Mike Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow. These guys aren’t exactly chopped liver. It’s good to see Max Von Sydow not phone in his performance in this one. The full Max is quite impressive but there’s not enough of him.

Ben Kingsley looks quite like Freud except without the grey hair. He has the head shape and goatee, but the wrong glasses. Max Von Sydow supplies the white hair and the glasses.

What’s Bad About It

Michelle Williams is not good in this film. I just didn’t much like what she brought to this film. Considering she’s an understated sort of actress, she comes across as tentative and fringey.

Also, the Holocaust references were a bit gratuitous. Yes, we know the greatest horror humanity has visited upon other humans is the death camps under the NAZIs, but they don’t exactly have a monopoly on those stakes. To see the old trotted out to portray Dachau were a bit of thematic overkill. Especially when you find out that what’s really ailing the main character has nothing to do with NAZIs and concentration camps. This is just gratuitous Holocaust-porn whereby a film maker or fiction writer just waves around the Holocaust in order to signify horror as if there’s nothing else that’s ever been horrifying before or since.  It’s disingenuous.

What’s Interesting About It

I don’t think trick endings work. A lot of people fail to grasp the trick ending. The worst kind of trick ending is where you find out it was all a dream. If it’s all a dream of a mad person, then you always wonder if it was all that worthwhile going for a ride, watching the film. The best comparison I could think for this film was ‘Identity’ (which coincidentally starred John Cusack and Amanda Peet who I mentioned in the previous post on Apocalypse movies). ‘Identity’ is a film that looks like a modern re-imaging of ‘Psycho’ which turns out to be all a story inside the mind of a psychotic serial killer.

The notion that all the irrational things shown to us on the screen is justified on the grounds of psychosis is, to be honest, a bit weak as narratives go. Where ‘Identity’ succeeded was in having all the seemingly irrational elements tie into a rational explanation of why they had to be the way they were.That tying together process doesn’t exactly take place in this film, so we’re left wondering if the insanity is real – and given the narrator’s already lied to you, you don’t feel like you should take on board the new narrative reality. It’s awkward.

Those Damn NAZIs!

The film Leonardo DiCaprio did coming in to Shutter Island was ‘Revolutionary Road‘ and you all know what I had to say about the presentation of the war experience in that film. Well, unfortunately Leo DiCaprio is wandering around a World War II terrain that leads into Dachau in this film and he looks awful serious as he watches the NAZI commandant die. Well a quick look at the Wikipedia entry on Dachau shows the commandant fled, so that clearly didn’t happen but the Dachau massacre of German guards did happen.

In the film you see the gate that says in German ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’/’Freedom Through Work’, but of course that gate belonged to Auschwitz and not Dachau*. I mean, if you’re going to go to the trouble of working in the Holocaust into a story, you might want to get this stuff right, even if you’re Martin Scorsese (or perhaps especially if you are Martin Scorsese).

It’s really no dispute to say the circumstances of Dachau’s fall to the Americans is worthy of some kind of cinematic treatment, and the story of the Dachau massacre is even worthy of a cinematic treatment, but in this instance, they’re reduced to sideshows in a film about the inside the head of a crazy American guy. He may as well have survived the Titanic in his childhood or something, but it doesn’t add more significance to the main beef of the story.

The Operation Paperclip Legacy

At one point before the big reveal that the main character is insane, he touches on a few possibilities about Shutter Island’s purpose. One of the things he imagines in a cave is that Shutter Island is indeed like Dachau where unspeakable experiments are being carried out on the insane. The presence of Max Von Sydow’s character as some kind of NAZI scientist who was brought over to the USA after World War II adds some credibility to this notion as it is explained by a woman who is presumably a figment of the main character’s imagination.

When the film is all said and done, it may have been more interesting if the film concerned itself with that possibility rather than the conclusion it staggers to at the end. After all, it would be brave to start dissecting the wild possibilities of the evil science that may have been brought to America by these ex-NAZI scientists. Like, say, Werner von Braun. It seems it’s easier to write such episodes of history off as us being crazy for being suspicious, rather than perhaps there lurking some awful truth in there somewhere. I guess that would make us paranoid – but that’s just how plausible deniability works, isn’t it?


I was wrong. They did have the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign at Dachau. It’s just not sitting above the gate as it does at Auschwitz. Those NAZIs were decidedly sick.

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