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Home » Culture and Criticism

Oscars 2011 Death Race Preview: Shutter Island

Submitted by on January 24, 2011 – 11:05 AM21 Comments

It's tempting to blow Shutter Island off with a "there's no there there," but there's a there. It takes the script about an hour too long to arrive at, is the issue, and the story doesn't have quite the heft that the by-turns-ponderous-and-frantic barrage of freshman-comp imagery has tried to lend it. The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw compares the movie to a shaggy-dog story, but I don't entirely agree; a "fuck you, Frank" punchline's fundamental intention is to build and build, at length, to a wet firecracker, but this isn't that. Shutter Island put me more in mind of an old saw about jazz, that if you have a really good first eight bars and a really good last eight bars, they'll forgive you for the self-indulgent tootling in the middle — the ending is ambiguous, suggests an endless loop, gives Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo a chance to react in a genuine way instead of expositioning and pulling crampy faces. But it's too late by then.

The basic plot isn't anything all that groundbreaking, but it's essentially solid, and a more straightforward treatment of it might have served it better. Scorsese isn't the man for an understated job like that, though, so we get nearly two and a half hours of forbidding terrain shots, papers and ash flying about, constant incursions of water, skipped frames, and color saturation to pass the time while we wait for the characters to catch up. I like Scorsese's work, and I can forgive his obsessions and lazinesses because I like the way he thinks, narratively. He comes up with a handful of memorable compositions here — but he tries so valiantly to make every shot, every scene one for the highlight reel that he loses all contrast and texture.

I'd watched the movie as an Oscars Death Race preview entry, thinking the acting might get some notice, but now I don't know. The cast turns in a yeoman effort, but the writing and inert pace hamstring them almost completely. Ruffalo in particular is stuck with responses that don't ring true (and generally speaking, the dialogue often sounded too contemporary; certain phrasings like "mental-health field" or "suck a cock" didn't ring fifties to me) and overly deliberate explanatory passages. Michelle Williams has to play a series of points on a creepy version of the madonna/whore axis that's apparently derived from some of Sylvia Plath's less rigorously edited work, and she's a pro about it, but her scenes, like all the others, take too long to get anywhere, and she doesn't have much chemistry with DiCaprio, who's miscast in the first place.

It's a strange movie: it's both interesting and very dull, both kind of cool and kind of bad. Writing it up, I kept thinking about The Scarlet Letter, how I could see a good story in there and didn't understand why Hawthorne didn't just tell it, trust it, instead of testing our resolve with another description of Pearl doing Something Symbolic.

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  • Todd K says:

    I'm glad you weren't too explicit with the plot details, as I never have gotten around to this, and want to, eventually. I doubt it will figure into an Oscar Death Race, though. It was released early in the year and wasn't any critical world-beater considering the talent involved. Ruffalo and Williams will be recognized for other films, and if DiCaprio surprises with a Best Actor nomination, it will be on an "Inception" wave, not for this. Kingsley is an old favorite, but I don't see him elbowing into Supporting.

    I like DiCaprio, but I've thought over the last decade that he *usually* has seemed miscast, and it's been a matter of him either battling that to a draw or not. There's still something youthful about him that he's playing against, and it is an awkward stage common in actors who get over in a big way as teenagers or young adults. Even in "Revolutionary Road," where he actually was playing younger than his real age, I always was conscious of watching contemporary star Leonardo DiCaprio workshopping this corporate cog and unhappy husband from the 1950s, rather than inhabiting Yates's character (I found that whole movie miscalibrated, except for the Givings family's scenes). I invariably see determination, hard work, and intelligence in what he does, but "Catch Me If You Can" has been the one role since his early-aughts comeback that made me think he was just perfect for it, as he was in his great younger roles ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and "Marvin's Room"). He wasn't trying too hard, aggressively proving some point about his range, or attempting an accent he couldn't sustain, and I wouldn't have wanted any other actor in his place.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    There's still something youthful about him that he's playing against

    Agreed, although he's more successful at beating that than he is here, usually. My own issue with some of his parts is that he reads as too modern for period roles, though it depends on the period. Gangs Of New York, I liked him in, but that casting didn't entirely work for me, and the only thing that really kind of saved it was that the casting of Cameron Diaz was even more out of sync…and that Day-Lewis was guzzling the scenery, even in scenes he wasn't in, which had the effect of washing out the rest of the acting to a degree. The Departed was a role I really thought he would have no business in, but I really enjoyed that performance — although, again, at least for me, he was put in the shade by other portrayals to a degree (in that case, it was Matt Damon's utter mastery of the pathetic-dick type — see also The Talented Mr. Ripley).

    Overall, Scorsese's knighting of him as Go-To De Niro Jr. doesn't do it for me. I feel like Scorsese tells stories about a certain blue-collar type, and that DiCaprio is a little too refined in his presentation — his appearance, his line readings, etc. I give him credit for getting further in parts where he's aesthetically inappropriate for the role than most other actors would, but: you know.

    Agreed also that if DiCaprio gets a nod, it will be for Inception, which I know I'm going to have to see and which I'm not psyched about. It's going to bug the shit out of me, I can just tell, and I cannot abide Ellen Page.

  • Rachel says:

    I read this book and thought it was all right. I'd rumbled the ending way early on and I liked the anagrams and whatnot. But I don't know if I liked the book enough to want to sit through 2 and a half hours of Scorsese Movie. In fact, I think it took me less time to read the book. Maybe I'll leave it at that.

    Re: DiCaprio, I think Sars hit it with calling him "too refined" for a lot of the roles he takes. There's nothing "gritty" about him at all, he's like Jude Law in that way (and let's pause for a moment of silence to mourn mid-90's hot Jude Law, because what happened to THAT guy?) in that he's built, physically and otherwise, to play a certain kind of role.

    On the other hand, who would you have put in Leo's role instead? The boys, they're all so pretty these days.

  • attica says:

    DiCaprio's problem,, imo, is his voice — that's the thing that retains the adolescent about him. It's too high and nasally, his timbre is too pinched and whiny (which also makes it sound more modern). It's a voice that worked in The Quick and the Dead, but not in much since then.

    Maybe it's because his character was less chatty (compared to all the scenery consumers around him) in The Departed that made it a more successful turn for him.

  • Jean says:

    On the other hand, who would you have put in Leo's role instead? The boys, they're all so pretty these days.

    I read somewhere that RDJ was originally offered the part but had to pass due to Iron Man obligations. I don't know how true that is, but I think he would have been interesting in the part. I could have bought him in it a lot more easily than DiCaprio.

  • Jenn says:

    @Rachel – same here re: the book. It might be worth seeing the movie to see if everything holds up, but going in already knowing the ending, I don't think I would enjoy it as much.

  • Bria says:

    I just finished reading this, and about halfway through the book I remembered that LDC was in the movie (which I haven't seen). I had to look it up on IMDB, because my gut reaction was "he's playing…whom? Surely not Teddy." @Jean – RDJ would have been a really interesting choice. I bet he would have done a lot with the role. This may be totally crazy, and success would depend entirely on his ability to shed Elliot Stabler…but what about Chris Meloni? I can kind of see it.

  • Jeanne says:

    I liked this for what it was, standard Scorcese scenery porn. Leo was wrong for the part I agree. And he can't do a New England accent for shity and I hope he doesn't try it again. It took me out of The Departed and it took me out of this too.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    I think DiCaprio's a really, really good actor but the combination of his delicate features and linesman body cause a cognitive dissonance in the viewer that isn't easily overcome.

    He was one of those very thin, delicate boys when he started (This Boy's Life, Gilbert Grape) and his finely etched features echoed his physicality. I had no trouble buying him as a boy yearning for manhood, flooded with testosterone that hadn't made an imprint or growth spurt happen yet.

    Than that testosterone slapped him to the mat and had its way with him and he bulked up and out–seriously. Look at a picture of him standing around on set or walking down the street. He's BIG. But his boyish face didn't grow to meet the challenge–his head just kept expanding around it. One reviewer said it looked like his features "crouch" in the middle of his face, and that pretty much says it for me.

    I know the poor guy's in his thirties but it's hard for me to buy him as a grown up, especially in love scenes. My mind sees his body and says "yeah! Go actress, mack the hell out of him!" but than I see that sweet face and mentally scream "NO! Back off actress! He's TWELVE! This is WRONG!"

    I don't see this in all his movies, but the chemistry has to be just right between Leo and his co-star: I bought it in The Departed and really bought it in Inception, didn't mind it in Titanic or Revolutionary Road. But Shutter Island just creeped me out. It really felt like a boy was being asked to do Innappropriate Things.

  • Kristen says:

    I listened to the audio book (before the movie). It was entertaining — a good suspense/mystery book with a pulp-y vibe. Enjoyable, but not that out of the ordinary or extrodinarily well written. It seemed like the movie was trying to be more of an important-serious-drama than the story actually was. It was weird.

    Also, it seemed strange that LdC would make both this movie and Inception in the same year. There were a lot of similarities, with both small and large plot points and characterizations.

  • Todd K says:

    I was going to save what I had to say for the eventual "Inception" thread, but I agree with Jen S 1.0 — LDC and Cotillard (and Page, in a different way) played off of each other well.

    @SDB: I put off "Inception" for a long time because the combination of the trailer, the subject matter, and the argumentative fan chatter had me expecting overwrought big-budget summer dreck with a patina of high concept. But I On-Demanded it a few weeks ago and it turned out to be the only Christopher Nolan movie besides his "Insomnia" remake that I've liked much. Coming off of "The Dark Knight," which whatever it had going for it in atmosphere and performances was a frequently inept piece of storytelling, I didn't think CN had it in him to sustain multiple narrative threads with such lucidity that the viewer always know where he is in each one, but he does it. Some of this is due to better (i.e. less frenetic, more classical) film editing, but it is his screenplay too.

    The only painful part is Hans Zimmer's relentlessly pounding score, which I thank God I didn't experience in a movie theater with all the latest surround-sound torture devices set to "deafen."

    And I can't believe it's been a year since you were dreading "Avatar" and I was in the comments section with, essentially, "Yeah…it didn't suck as much as some of the other ones on your to-do list." But "Inception" is quite a bit better than "Avatar," and 2010 was a better movie year than 2009. I'm enjoying myself more in the annual winter catch-up.

  • ferretrick says:

    It didn't help that I guessed the "twist" less than 20 minutes in-and isn't that twist becoming almost a cliche at this point?

    BTW, don't worry about Ellen Page in Inception. I do like her but in Inceptino she has absolutely nothing to do. Her entire character is The Person Who Needs Explanation So The Audience Knows What's Going On and that's all she has to do. Meryl Streep would not be able to make an impression in this part so it doesn't matter who does it.

  • There's a movie from about 50 years ago called SHOCK CORRIDOR that's about a reporter going undercover inside a mental hospital, and when I first read Lehane's novel, I thought it had a similar feel, and given Scorsese is a huge fan of the director of SHOCK CORRIDOR, I thought that's what he was going for. But it seemed like he never really had a handle on the material, and as you say, was just throwing things up on the screen in a desperate attempt to make it work. I don't blame the cast; they do their best under the circumstances, and Patricia Clarkson and Jackie Earle Haley especially do well in small roles. But it just didn't work.

  • Todd K says:

    @ferretrick: "The Person Who Needs Explanation So The Audience Knows What's Going On" — I laughed. So true. When I was watching Inception, I thought, "She's the Donna Moss of the dream-invasion business." Half of her lines are questions to DiCaprio or one of his partners; another quarter are incorrect assumptions that they can correct.

    However, I actually do think that that role called for a kind of finesse, and that Page supplied it. We had to believe the character would be intelligent enough to keep up with that group when thrown into the deep end, and intrigued enough to be drawn into their scheme when she was in no way compelled. She played those things effectively. Had she come off as a dumb, irritating token-girl sidekick, it would have unbalanced the movie. This needed a young actress good at playing listening and thinking, which isn't exactly glamourous work.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Joseph Gordon Leavitt kissing Ellen Page was my favorite part of Inception. And I really liked that whole movie.

  • Profreader says:

    Attica — you're so right about Leo di C.'s voice. In fact, I think that's a problem with a lot of current movie actors (both male and female.) They never get any vocal training, so their speaking voices have no color, tone, range. Their voices sound thin, flat and immature, even as they grow into their thirties. I (perhaps inexplicably) love Winona Ryder, but she's a classic example of this problem. I had no idea why they kept tossing her into period pieces, when her speaking voice was so limited. I love Little Women, but she's the weakest link of the cast in some ways — definitely vocally. It limits an actor's expressiveness. There are those with naturally light voices — like, say, Diane Keaton — who find a way to still use their voices expressively. But Leo di C. is one of those actors who needed his voice to mature along with his body.

    That said, Inception was the first movie in a while in which he did not bug me like crazy. I'll be interested to know your opinion, Sars. I'm hoping the movie pulls off some design wins, because my good friend's husband did some of the art direction/scenic design, which is amazing in many parts.

    Ellen Page seems to come off like Janeane Garofalo, Jr. — which is fine for me, since I like them both — but I could see how she could irritate someone.

    And one more thank you for remaining mysterious on the details of "Shutter Island." I've been teetering on the edge of finally just breaking down, renting it, and finding out what the heck it's all about. I was going to go see it in the theater but somehow plans got changed that night — I was never all fired up to see it but still have that urge.

  • Todd K says:

    @Profreader: Good observation on the lack of vocal training. The exceptions tend to be actors who have significant stage experience. The stage vets also tend to be the ones who can make a goddamned speech when required, without falling apart. I probably have seen too many awards shows and am just getting crabby on this topic, but…come on. Flustered gratitude for a few seconds can be charming (and I love Meryl Streep's who-knows-how-authentic rambles when she wins something, because she is smart and clever and she *can* talk), but I don't find it cute when adults who pursued careers as performers — and in many cases knew they were favored to win — can't form coherent sentences or stay oxygenated in front of a crowd, and it goes on and on.

    I read some book in which the author described the archived radio broadcast of a long-ago Academy Awards, and he pointed out (less meanly than he could have) the contrast between the well-modulated voices, precise enunciation, and impeccable grammar that were the norm at one time, and what we usually get now. Of course, the "ceremony" was a more intimate affair then, and I would not want to go back to a time when everything out of actors' mouths sounded stilted and rehearsed, like a studio-approved pronouncement. But…you know. Maybe a little of one and a little of the other?

    I do like WR, including even in some period roles, such as her May in The Age Of Innocence. I did not think much of Black Swan but was glad to see her in a showy (if small) supporting role in what is being treated as a prestige picture. It has been a while.

  • Rachel says:

    @Jen S. 1.0 – Joseph Gordon Leavitt – now THERE is a kid who is growing up to be quite the handsome man. I haaaaaated (500) Days of Summer (mostly due to my Zooey distaste and the fact that the art director thought Shades of Beige were the only colors available) but I loved him in it. If he keeps picking the right roles, he will be one to watch.

    It's snowing today – maybe I'll have time to give Shutter Island a shot. I can't imagine that I will have to pay super-strict attention to it, since I know what happens already.

  • Jaybird says:

    Ohhh, Zooey Deschanel. If ever I wanted to ban someone outright from the entire entertainment industry, it's her. My left buttcheek could out-act her, doped up and in a dentist's chair. HATE.

    Although I greatly enjoyed the profoundly ooky atmosphere in "Shutter Island", I'll be haunted by thoughts of what could have been if RDJ had played the DiCaprio role, because RDJ could have grabbed that business and made it scream.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Aaaaand I watched it for nothing. Bastaaaaaaaards!

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Todd K, total agreement here. I'm watching Downton Abbey on PBS, and on the TWoP forums there's mad love for the guy playing Bates. He's a handsome man but not breathtaking, and clearly middle aged. So why the breathless adoration?

    Every single poster mentioned his marvelous, rounded speaking voice. Deep, modulated, but always in the service of the craft–no overly plummy "ACT-ING" modulation where it isn't called for. Just smoooooooth sailing over his lines, with the inflections and nuance just right to convey emotional states that his character could never openly display. Sighhhhh.

    In a world where we've heard him, and Patrick Stewart, it's hard to settle for less.

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