Shudder Island

Spoiler alert – I recommend you watch [and even pay for] the movie Shutter Island, but this blog post will give away parts of the story.

I am a fan of Martin Scorsese’s movies. So it has been disconcerting over the past few months to have periodically seen the preview of his new film, Shutter Island. Those previews were about things that go boo in the night, complete with young children with the whole mortuary-look slash wisdom beyond their years gaze. Oh no, not Scorsese. I tried to make sense of it. Had he filed for bankruptcy lately? Divorced? Had the George Harrison project turn into a money pit?

Undaunted, I made my trek to a matinee showing – a poor man’s version of a private screening. I would like to extend my apologies to Mr. Scorsese for having even momentarily doubted him. Intensity-wise, it would fall somewhere between a pro golfer’s apology and how a teenager expresses regrets to their parents for anything.

The Story

It was Scorsese movie-worthy. There are not too many good things to be said about not reading enough, but one one them is that you can come to see a new movie based on a best selling novel and have no idea where the story is going. The author of Shutter Island is Dennis Lehane. By my count, this is now the 3rd great movie based on Mr Lehane’s novels. The other two were Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone. In my book, Mr. Lehane has now crossed over into the Tom Wolfe, Richard Price zone of writers whose work should not be missed, even if it means knowing where the story is going in the next great film.

The Character Actors

A number of the actors are immediately recognizable. Not in a distracting way of ‘their not believable here,’ but rather actors who trigger the ‘confidence in this movie’ mindset. It’s the movie version of a benzodiazepine derivative drug. As you watch this movie, you’ll worry about who administers the drugs you take. Then again, by the end of the movie you should have had a Richard Pryor-type epiphany — as in ‘thank God we got jails’ — about drugs and those who administer them.

  • Robin Bartlett – Sophie’s Choice, Moonstruck, Dangerous Minds
  • Patricia Clarkson – The Untouchables, The Green Mile, Good Night, and Good Luck
  • Jackie Earle Haley – Breaking Away – OK, I didn’t really recognize the guy, but I loved Breaking Away and it was nice to realize that Moocher went on to have a good career. It’s the Anthony Michael Hall syndrome [I invented the syndrome, so I get to name it].
  • Elias Koteas – Crash, Thin Red Line, Zodiac
  • Ted Levine – Silence of the Lambs, Heat, From the Earth to the Moon.
  • John Carroll Lynch – Fargo [Norm], Gran Torino, Zodiac [this movie was like a Zodiac reunion; Koteas, Lynch & Mark Ruffalo]
  • Emily Mortimer – Notting Hill, Lovely & Amazing
  • Max von Sydow – Poor guy, I first saw him in the Exorcist, so I kind of assume he’s been stuck in his 70’s since 1972 [he’s 81 now]. I also assumed he was scary because I associated him with fighting the devil in Regan’s room, but by now I know that the brother just got some skills, as Tim Hardaway might say.

The Camera

Martin Scorsese is a great director. Martin Scorsese loves to move the camera. Why don’t more directors try and move the camera? In Shutter Island, the camera movement is a little disorienting, which fits in perfectly with the story. Scorsese takes ordinary scenes which are needed to provide key facts, as in, ‘Hey that’s the dangerous building’ and makes it unique by actually swiveling the camera back and forth from the main characters point of view. In the beginning of the movie, as the story arrives on Shutter Island, we are given a panoramic camera angle which swoops in from sky all the way into a jeep. You’ll think you’re Soarin’®.

The Music

From the appropriately eerie ‘Fog Tropes’ to the maddeningly appropriate ‘This Bitter Earth,’ the music in this movie is kind of like an insurance policy. It makes sure you are alerted and in the correct mood, even if you are not too sure about what is happening in the movie. When the movie opens in 1954, knowing Scorsese, I wondered if Presley or Miles Davis would be making an appearance. As with all my initial thoughts on the movie, I was wrong.

The music in the the film consists mainly of contemporary classical pieces. Turns out that a movie in which the action mostly takes place in Massachusetts’ Outer Harbor and Dachau, does not lend itself to rock n roll. Then again, it couldn’t have been easy for Scorsese to keep ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ out of this film. Lyrics from ‘This Bitter Earth:’

This bitter earth
Well, what fruit it bears
What good is love
mmmm that no one shares
And if my life is like the dust
oooh that hides the glow of a rose
What good am I
Heaven only knows

After watching this movie, your only complaint could be that those lyrics aren’t dark enough.

The Politics

Scorsese is usually more concerned with making a larger statements about the human condition or issues than scoring liberal points. So even though I’m fairly certain he’s a lefty — given his industry and cash contributions — he has not used his entertainment figure status to bash the other side. In short, I respect his politics.

Imagine my dismay when early in the movie one of the plot lines centered around the House on Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC]. HUAC is mostly mis-remembered for involving the first of many awful Wisconsin senators, Joseph McCarthy, the all-time liberal pinup.

[For the record, McCathy did more damage to a core conservative belief than any liberal ever did. He delegitimized a serious national security issue — see Alger Hiss, Owen Lattimore, Henry Wallace — the sharing of critical information about producing nuclear weapons with Russians by those within the US government who sympathized with their cause. As they say in the movies, you can look it up].

So I’m sitting in the movie with this sense of dread. [The feeling was like having parked at a meter in the City of Coral Gables and realized that your metered time expired 3 minutes ago, which means that there are likely 6 parking police ready to write you a ticket and impound your vehicle for the sake of their absurdly generous public employee pension plans]. Not only am I worried about this not being up to Scorsese standards, now I have to worry about having paid good [well, matinee] money for the umpteenth hokey storyline about how much of an over-reaction Americans had against Communism. Edward Daniels nightmares were secondary to mine at this point. Fortunately, in this case the movie mimicked real-life, as the evil HUAC conspiracy angle, proved to be fiction.

When I came to realize that, I wanted to turn off my thoughts about where this movie was going and just enjoy wherever it went — partly because of my sub-Mendoza line accuracy I admit — which has to be the best compliment I can give a director. That and the fact that there were unforgettable scenes, images and lines.

Unforgettable Scenes

A number of flash back scenes were based a character’s experience as an American soldier who was part of the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp in Germany on 29 April 1945. Few would bemoan violence against Nazi personnel, especially those at concentration camps, but Scorsese’s mad skills take a serious swipe at the concept. First we watch approvingly as a Nazi officer is allowed to bleed to death slowly, instead of being given a quicker exit. But after we see the scene of the mass execution of Nazi’s at the Dachau camp, we pause. Pause partly because it was a sit up in your seat I just watched another Sofia Coppola getting baptized or Travis Bickle getting angry, i.e. a classic scene in a great movie. We also partly pause because of an earlier admonition from the Warden, now becomes clearer, “can my violence conquer yours?” I’m still paused on the issue of what violence is justified as retribution. It was a solid yes in certain cases before the movie. I may not end up changing my mind, but in my case the position clearly needs fortification.

The movie ends dismayingly — dismaying that it ended, not how it ended — with another great question. Is it better to “live like a monster or die a good man?” I find my inclinations at odds with my faith in both questions posed during the movie. Maybe I secretly wish that Tarantino would direct the sequel to Shutter Island, ‘Kill Teddy & Eddie & Nazi’s.’ Shudder that thought.

Maybe Scorsese is trying to give voice to the types of beliefs which give us reason to pause. Read the ending lyrics to the music he ended his movie with – again from ‘This Bitter Earth:’

Lord, this bitter earth
Yes, can be so cold
Today youre young
Too soon, youre old
But while a voice within me cries
Im sure someone may answer my call
And this bitter earth
Ooooo may not
Oh be so bitter after all

Great movie from a great director.

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About Jorge Costales

- Cuban Exile [veni] - Raised in Miami [vidi] - American Citizen [vici]
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