Oscars 2011 Death Race Preview: Shutter Island
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.
Tags: Leonardo DiCaprio Mark Ruffalo Martin Scorsese Michelle Williams Nathaniel Hawthorne Oscars 2011 Death Race Peter Bradshaw simmer down freshman Sylvia Plath