Stranded on Shutter Island in February: How Scorsese built a raft and sailed home anyway!

Posted on 25 February 2010 by ShepRamsey

Something happened last weekend that, well, should have happened four months ago—I got to see Martin Scorsese’s new film Shutter IslandBy virtue of the fact that the iconic director’s last three narrative features all scored at least a Best Picture nomination (with 2006’s The Departed being his first BP and Director win), this psychological horror-thriller starring current Scorsese-muse Leonardo DiCaprio was seen as a definite Oscar contender before its October 2, 2009 release date came around.

Of course, another thing that happened before that date was that the release of the film got pushed back a full four months—breezing straight past Oscar season—to the weekend of February 19, 2010. 

In all honesty, I can see how this might have been a smart move from a business standpoint.  As a genre picture looking to cash in on a very bankable horror movie audience, not only were its Oscar prospects a bit lower than normal Scorsese fare, but an October release date would have pitted it against not only Zombieland, The Stepfather, and Saw VI, but also the horror phenomenon of the year, Paranormal Activity.  Now, the change in date for Shutter Island might have occurred before Paranormal looked like a surefire hit, but we all know the studios have ways of predicting things well in advance.  So right there, that’s a horror audience divided and an Oscar audience potentially disinterested.  (I stress “potentially,” however.  But we’ll get back to that.)

Alternately, February must have looked like a really nice place to settle.  Early in the year always seems to be a pretty solid time to roll out a genre picture or two.  (Cloverfield anyone?)  When it’s cold out and there’s nothing else to do, horror audiences will show up in droves.  Sure, it’s up against last week’s The Wolfman, perhaps a more widely agreeable premise than that of Shutter Island, but at the end of the day, Benicio Del Toro isn’t as big a star as Leonardo DiCaprio, and—while I really liked Wolfman—director Joe Johnston probably shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same sentence as.  Martin Scorsese.

So, like I said, as a business move, pushing Shutter Island back to February was fairly understandable.  It was risky for Oscar audiences looking for classy Aviator Scorsese and risky for Halloween horror audiences with a wealth of alternative options.  And now that it’s out there, it’s performed quite well, easily coming in at the top of the box office last weekend with a respectable $40.2 million.  So yeah…I get it.

But that doesn’t mean I agree with it.

It is my humble opinion that Shutter Island could have done quite well for itself in the chaos of awards season, and for the simple fact that it’s just that good.  I loved Shutter Island, and I don’t want to speak too soon, but I think it may be my favorite Scorsese-DiCaprio venture yet.  Had it come out on its original date, I think it would have easily found a spot in my top five of last year. 

But by the standards with which we are forced to measure these things nowadays, it looks like Shutter Island’s Oscar prospects for the coming 2010 season are precisely nil.  Yes, what I mean to say is that online movie critic aggregators RottenTomatoes and MetaCritic both show opinions turning out a bit mixed—leaning positive, but mixed nonetheless—for this film.  Sad as the truth may be, this is the standard by which we judge the overall worth of most movies nowadays.  But that’s another discussion.

I believe that through the eyes of a lot of critics, this film had two things working against it that I honestly feel could have been alleviated had the movie been released on its original date. 

First, there’s the simple fact that the last-minute date change (not to mention one that excises a Martin Scorsese film from Oscar season) speaks volumes to the notion that the distributing studio, in this case Paramount Pictures, has little confidence in the quality of the film.  That creates a stigma that’s going to be hard for a lot of people to separate themselves from when watching the film, and people will be prone to judge it more harshly.  I think in some cases—certainly not all, but certainly some—this is what happened. 

There must be at least a handful of critics—major newspaper critics, online critics, bloggers, Netflix user reviews with lofty aspirations, or anyone—that gave this film a negative review, who would have given it a positive review—maybe not glowing, but at least respectable—if it had come out in October.  There must be.  But enough to make a difference in its overall reception?  Who knows?

I also believe that if it had come out in the thick of Oscar season, with people being a bit nicer to it and, good or bad, examining it as a contender (which, good or bad, they aren’t right now), that it would have certainly gotten a generous assortment of technical citations which it very much deserved.  On top of being one of the best-looking films (especially in the midst of its subject) that I’ve seen recently, let me just say that it is a rare occasion that I notice how amazing a film’s sound is, but in Shutter Island, the sound is endlessly eerie and effective.

The cinematography and art direction are utterly amazing, hitting a fine note of haunting surrealism—I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie where the colors scared me, but Shutter Island, with its unsettling dream, fantasy, and flashback sequences, creates reds that scream bloody murder at you, grays that overcome and alienate you on the vast island landscape, and blacks that drown you despair.  It’s Martin Scorsese’s most visually arresting film since Bringing Out the Dead

I can only imagine that if Shutter Island had been released in October, it would have seen nominations for its cinematography, art direction, sound, and its sly editing, once again the pride of longtime Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker.

Such technical recognitions might have created a sense of goodwill for the film which could have possibly pushed it into higher realms of awards consideration, even if the critical reception had been identical to what it is now.  (Avatar anyone?)

But I said I believed Shutter Island to have two things working against its critical success, and had it not had to overcome the stigma of a last-minute date-change, it still might not have overcome its second hurtle, which I, myself, almost let it trip and fall upon.

From this point out, I’m going to be concerning my points heavily with the plot of the movie, and I do plan on getting spoilery.  If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want anything ruined for you, then you might want to stop reading (and go see the movie!)  Although, my point might end up being that it makes the movie better to know what’s going on from the beginning.  So approach at your own risk. 

To the inevitable chagrin of many, Shutter Island is another one of those movies.  Perhaps that’s all I have to say, and whether you’ve seen the whole movie or just a trailer for it, you know what I mean.  However, to elaborate that sentence just a tad, let me put it this way: Shutter Island joins the ranks of such mixed company as The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Session 9, The Machinist, High Tension, Hide and Seek, The Number 23, and many others as another one of those movies. 

By now you must get my meaning, but in case you skipped any or all of those aforementioned movies, I’ll put it bluntly.  Shutter Island is one of those movies where the hero of the film spends the majority of the film fighting against an antagonistic force that he eventually realizes is actually him.

Working from a story that is very similar to William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration sprinkled with bits of Session 9, Scorsese’s film concerns Edward “Teddy” Daniels, a U.S. marshal assigned to the case of the disappearance of a patient from a mental institution on the titular Shutter Island.  We soon learn that he requested the case specifically so that he could gain admittance to the institution to seek retribution from Andrew Laeddis, the man responsible for his wife’s murder, who he believes to be held there. 

At the end of the film, Daniels discovers that he is Andrew Laeddis, he killed his wife, and Edward Daniels (an anagram of Andrew Laeddis) is an alternate identity he created for himself out of his insanity.  His “assignment” is simply an experimental large-scale role-playing therapy conceived by the chief psychiatrist, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), who appeared to be the villain for most of the movie. 

There was a point several years ago when I became really, really sick of this kind of ending, and—as such—I should’ve really hated Shutter Island, right?

Well, no.  For one thing, there’s far more to it than just the above synopsis, and every second of Shutter Island is meticulously crafted to the point where it could really end no other way than how it does.  This final revelation of the film isn’t a shocking twist—it’s the closure that’s been coming the whole time.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie earn the classification of “psychological thriller” as much as this one does.  Although the onscreen plot of the film is literally happening at all times (in other words, not Teddy’s hallucination—though not shy of hallucinatory imagery, either), Shutter Island is a film of and for the mind.

But I’m not going to lie—at its first appearance, I was put off by the ending, too.  “This again?” I though.  But, Scorsese is so careful in how he crafts every second—the ending included—and he orchestrates the final brushstrokes so stirringly and chillingly, that all of my ill-conceived grievances were thrown away in seconds.  

After realizing I felt this way about the movie, I was initially tempted to acknowledge my own hypocrisy.  I bitchily asked myself, “Oh, so you’re sick of that ending, but it’s okay when Scorsese does it?”

But to be perfectly honest, the answer to that question is YES!  It is okay when Scorsese does it—and not because he’s Scorsese, King of Cinema, and no one should question him, but because of the reason that he’s Scorsese, King of Cinema.  Martin Scorsese has earned his reputation because he legitimately is an outstanding filmmaker.  And Shutter Island is the work of an outstanding filmmaker. 

For me, the talent and the story of Shutter Island absolutely had what it takes to overcome my supposed second obstacle which stands in its way of widespread critical acceptance, but some might find themselves too irritated by it to let themselves see the bigger picture.  I can somewhat sympathize with that sentiment, but humbly ask all detractors, how would you have ended it?  What should have been awaiting Teddy in the top room of the lighthouse?  When thinking back on the entire film before that moment, can you honestly imagine that anything else would have been right?

If you didn’t like the movie even up until that moment, that’s one thing—maybe it’s just not your cup of tea.  But if you were right there with it up until the “big reveal,” then I feel like you might have missed the point.  I’m not judging—like I said, I felt the same way at first—but I am asking you to reconsider.

Yes, this ending has been done before in various capacities—most of the time just to have a shocking final twist—but in Shutter Island it is the integral part of the entire film, from a standpoint of both plot and theme.  I cannot fault this film—a movie that I feel didn’t make a single misstep—for the faults of movies past.  One of my favorite types of movies is the type that begs to be seen again and again.  Shutter Island is one of those movies—I can’t wait to see it again. 

I look forward to watching many things in a new light, now having the benefit of knowing exactly what’s going on.  There are so many things that I want to pay particular attention to, like the performances of Ben Kingsley and Mark Ruffalo, and also to a very chilling conversation between DiCaprio and the warden, played by Ted “Was She a Great Big Fat Person?” Levine.  There’s so much to gain from this movie from multiple viewings.

As such, I feel like Shutter Island is a movie that might benefit economically (and might have benefited just as easily in October) from repeat business.  You know—the kind of business that helped out Avatar, Titanic, and The Dark Knight so much.  Now, don’t misconstrue that I’m saying that Shutter Island could ever in a million years pull in the business that helped those movies break records, but I am saying that there’s a wealth of bank to be made off of fanboys like myself.

But still, even that notion didn’t help it get released it last year.  Shutter Island got bumped.  Paramount panicked, and a Martin Scorsese picture—his first narrative film after a long-overdue Oscar-win—got bumped and placed in the early-year period best known as the cinematic dumping ground.  Although as far as I’m concerned, February is starting to be a pretty dependable month in which to catch a great movie.  February 2008 gave us In Bruges, February 2009 brought Coraline, and this year we’ve been given Shutter Island.  It works for me, frankly.

And it worked out fine for the studio, as well.  Aside from the fact that Shutter Island is making some solid money right now, they also fared well during Oscar season, with their Jason Reitman picture Up in the Air showing up on the Best Picture ballot, as well as being nominated for its script, direction, and a wealth of acting awards. 

So all that really happened was that Shutter Island missed out on some potential accolades.  Oh well.  I’m sure Scorsese will live—he did for years and years before, after all.  Nevertheless, he’s fashioned a fascinating, terrifying, and thrilling addition to his prolific career that I know I’ll be watching over and over for years to come.


1 Comments For This Post

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