This review originally appeared on a now-defunct version of the website Screen Machine.
I write on Martin Scorsese’s new film Shutter Island mostly as an excuse to cross reference it to one of my favourite quotes I’ve encountered in my time spent reading film criticism. The author in question is NY Press’s noted contrarian Armond White, who wrote of Brian DePalma’s maligned 2000 sci-fi flop Mission to Mars that “It can be said with certainty that any reviewer who pans it does not understand movies, let alone like them”. As declarations go it’s pretty deliciously outrageous, but it nevertheless says something important. I suggest to you that any reviewer who dismisses Shutter Island as one might dismiss Mission to Mars can similarly be said to not understand movies. Here’s why:
Most who dismiss the film will focus, not without reason, on the story, and the various narrative twists and turns. And it is true that on this account Shutter Island is pretty silly. The narrative is basically a shell game, and when people figure out they’re being fooled with, probably quite early, they’re going to get cranky. And the major turns, when they come, are going to get scoffed at, especially since the narrative logic that gets them there is tenuous at best. US Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule head to an isolated island, taken up entirely by an institution for the criminally insane, to find a missing girl. As Daniels’ troubled past rises to the fore, the line between sane and insane becomes blurred. You see where this is going. You can feel the filmmakers trying to get a two handed grip on the narrative, and for the most part the tone and intention is quite clear, but the tale itself has insurmountable logic and structural flaws.
The big issue is that Scorsese, a master filmmaker by anyone’s definition, has decided to employ all the bombast and trickery and playfulness he can muster at the service of what is essentially a weak story. And for people for whom the story is the most important element, who treat cinema as little more than recorded theatre or literature, who, in short, don’t really understand or like cinema, this is going to be major discrepancy, and an insurmountable flaw.
For the others, who know how to and enjoy engaging film on a purely formal level, it’s not such a big deal, particularly when Scorsese is just throwing big dripping gobs of pure cinema up on the screen like a guy having a seizure. It’s so much fun; just a series of punchy episodes organised around the central themes of memory, madness, and trauma. Scene to scene he‘s doing something different, and weird, and bizarrely affecting. From the strangely clunky opening dialogue scene, to the back-projection-like green screen effects he drops into otherwise normal location scenes, to the handful of gob smacking dream-sequences he pulls off, along with two or three achingly moving flashbacks, it’s pretty much a sensory feast. The formal elements that Scorsese is so good at, the kind of stuff he serves up here, is the essence of cinema, and it’s often too easy to forget that story, dialogue, ideology should be mostly secondary concerns.
I read Dennis Lehane’s book before I saw it. I’d recommend even just reading the Wikipedia page. Remember: play along, don’t get played.