Hauling Like A Brooligan

Stephen Gallagher

Shutter Island

I’m not trying for spoilers, here, but if you want to keep yourself pure, don’t read on. Read this instead. It’s probably my most popular post.

I set out to see The Wolfman at the weekend, but got there an hour before showtime so bought a ticket for Shutter Island instead.

(I saw The Wolfman on Sunday, but that experience is a whole nother story.)

Shutter Island is a Scorsese film based on a Denis Lehane novel, two factors in its favour. But I’d seen a trailer last year in which the whole thing had looked like a bit of a mess. At his best, Scorsese is a disciplined, visceral filmmaker; but when he tries to give the studios something commercial, he can be like bad opera. But what the hell. I gave it a go.

The movie started badly, with a long and lumpy exposition scene on the deck of a boat. I spent the first hour – more than the first hour, actually – thinking, This is terrible. Sinking into my seat, wincing at the lines and the crudity of the mise-en-scene, unable to buy into any of the characters.

I spent the last twenty minutes thinking, This is brilliant.

It wasn’t because the last twenty minutes was in some way separable from what had gone before. It was more like watching a drunken orchestra pull itself together and show where it had been going all along. You had to endure erratic and irrational behaviour and a long, slow sobering-up to get the payoff.

This isn’t a good thing. I’m reminded of a friend in publishing who rejected a novel only to have the author argue that “The boredom of the early chapters is essential in order to fully experience the horror later on.” It doesn’t wash. If I’d been watching Shutter Island on DVD, I’d have baled early and my impression would have been totally negative.

The story is set in the 1950s but it has the feel and ethos of a 1940s psychological mystery. TV ads are talking about ‘the twist’, but ignore all that. Don’t sit there guessing. There’s no twist, just an outcome. To my mind it’s a well-wrought outcome, but not entirely an earned one.

If you buy a ticket or pick it up on disc, do yourself a favour. Stick with it and be forgiving. If you’re like me you’ll think it was worth it in the end. But along the way, you might wonder.

7 responses to “Shutter Island”

  1. Referring to this in your most popular post. "A child's spontenaeity is hard to fake as it is to spell."

    I recommend 'Outnumbered' for spontaneity and it's ability to cast a spell !

  2. I’m in two minds about catching this one. As a big Dennis Lehane fan (and seriously looking forward to the next Kenzie and Gennaro novel), I snapped up Shutter Island immediately upon publication and had the book out of the bag as soon as I was on the tube home.

    Though slight compared to Mystic River, but an enjoyable yarn nonetheless, I found the book to be the complete opposite: okay as a sort of spruced up pulp fiction through most of the novel but when it came to the last couple chapters and the eventual outcome, I was like, “Huh?! What the– ” I think the dissatisfaction came from the way it turned on those final few pages. If it had been a short story or maybe even a novella I probably wouldn’t have felt so short–changed, but to go through all those pages, have all the elements build up only to reach that outcome…?

    I got around to reading it again sometime around the middle of last year and it didn’t seem so bad the second go around. Much as I’m interested in what Scorsese has come up with I can’t say I’ve been that enamoured with his output from the last decade, if not longer. With the bigger budgets the films obviously have to appeal to a much wider audience than before and not only has that diluted the subject matter somewhat but to some degree neutered him as a director. I probably will see it, but when it’s on disc.

  3. Cape Fear is spot-on: this is Scorsese wearing his Hitchcock hat again, and frankly I wish he'd do it more often. Cape Fear was excellent, and Shutter Island – though not as good – I found entertaining from start to finish.

    It contains swathes of expositional dialogue but I felt – within the timeframe and style of the story – it fitted well.

    Design-wise and photography it is gorgeous to look at, with a splendid score too.

    Well recommended from me.

  4. I avoided this post until I saw the film – on a plane at the weekend with aircraft noise, people moving around and a crappy picture…but I still enjoyed it immensely. It was a bit Hitchcock even down to Ben Kingsley reminding me of Claude Raines (deliberatly I hope) and there were some very noticeable continuity errors (and they'd say those were deliberate too, I bet).

  5. I get the impression that Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker treat the shot material pretty radically, almost as if it were found footage, which can result in an energetic but sometimes crashing effect; almost as if scenes were rescued rather than executed to plan. Maybe it's just me. But I seem to see a lot of jumps, mismatched cuts and shots that look as if they've been stolen from places other than the one where they ended up.