MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Marty, You Can Do Better

Last week, I spoke of the virtues of Martin Scorsese and why all film geeks everywhere should be excited to see his newest film, Shutter Island.  The opening of a new Scorsese film was something that I felt was a cinematic event more exciting than the first weekend of any blockbuster.  So, just know that when I went to Shutter Island at a midnight showing late Thursday night with two of my best viewing companions with a room full of five hundred people, there was a palpable excitement.  I was seeing this film in the best of circumstances, in good seats in a theater with great sound and picture.  I was so unbelievably prepared to love whatever I was going to see.

Well, you can see where this is going.

Let me start by saying that Shutter Island is not a bad film by any means.  It is a perfectly acceptable film that is worth your time and money.  But as a Scorsese film, we naturally hold it to different standards and next to the other films he’s directed, it’s not one of his finest accomplishments.  I walked out of the film still wanting to love it, but within ten minutes of discussing the movie with my buddies Jack and Jonah, the holes started to become more and more apparent and I’d started to question everything about the film except for the beautiful photography.  It’s a testament to Scorsese that he can still inspire heated discussions, even when he makes a middling film, but if any other director had made the film, there would be no discussion at all.

When the film started, it seemed as if Scorsese was setting a certain mood.  There was the loud, ominous score and about fifteen minutes of exposition done in an almost comically outsized way.  But I was with it.  I turned to my buddy Jack who seemed concerned and I whispered, “I think I know what he’s doing.”  And Jack turned to me and asked, “What is he doing?”  I felt like the beginning of the film was setting things up to be Scorsese’s take on a Val Lewton kind of horror film, heavy on atmospherics.  I also, obviously, saw touches of Hitchcock – who seems to be a stronger influence as the film goes on.  But, I was with it, I felt like I was in the hands of Marty Scorsese and he knew what he was doing.

The movie drags for a little bit as things get set up and I found myself shifting a little bit in my seat and worrying.  The set-up for the film felt like it should be smoother and easier, but Kubrick took his time setting up The Shining too, so I tried to keep that in mind.  Then, when our lead character Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) go to the house of Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and there’s a sudden flashback to Daniels in Nazi Germany, I felt instantly jolted back into the story.  I was confused in the best possible way, wondering how this would play into the plot that I was watching unfold.  “Scorsese and Nazis?  I’m in,” I thought.  I turned to Jack and said, “Wow, this movie just got a hundred times more interesting.”

(This is a good place to mention that I don’t really talk much while watching a movie, contrary to the stories I’m telling here, but when I do have something to say to my neighbors, I do so in a barely audible whisper.  I make sure that nobody around me can hear the muffled sounds of my whispers.  Movie theaters are a shared space and it would be good if more people remembered this, so that everyone can enjoy it.  Whispering to your companion is an unacceptable thing, but talking in a regular voice about something is not.)

So about half an hour into the film, I was really starting to get into it.  I felt like I was seeing a master at work and I loved the way he was using misdirection to throw us off the trail and the way the flashbacks and dream sequences seemed both vital and yet elusive.  Then I turned to Jack and suggested a theory about what might be happening on the island.  He turned to be and suggested something else.  And as soon as Jack said it, I knew he was right.  And even if he hadn’t said it, I would have realized it five minutes later.

You see, Shutter Island is a film with a pretty big twist.  And once that twist is figured out, there is still some enjoyment to be derived from watching the pieces fall into place, but ultimately the film is dependent on you not knowing that twist.  As much as I hate to say it, this is essentially Scorsese doing an M. Night Shyamalan film, only in a much more graceful and tasteful way.  This proves the point that if you give Scorsese a mediocre script, he can make it into something more than what’s on the page.  But it almost seems like an experiment for Scorsese and the cast to try and elevate what is essentially a straightforward tale that tries to obscure its true colors – unsuccessfully – for its entire running time.

As I mentioned earlier, the Hitchcock references start coming fast and furious towards the end of the film.  In a scene at the lighthouse at the end of the film, as DiCaprio climbs the stairs, every single person in the theater should be screaming to themselves, “VERTIGO!” because it’s that obvious.  It’s a little too obvious, to be quite honest.  And then the very end of the film, after the twist has been revealed, feels exactly like the last seven minutes of Psycho, in that everything has been explained and the story is basically over and then we are given an unnecessary coda.

There is a flashback towards the end of the film where we see the actualization of something in Teddy’s life that has only been hinted at.  It is gut-wrenching and beautiful and tragic and it hit me hard.  And as the camera pulled back and we started to look at the scene from above, I was thinking, “if you end it here, you’re brilliant.”  But he didn’t and then we have the Psycho ending where we get a lot of psychobabble.  I’m trying to be as vague as possible, so as not to spoil anything.

The two things that really make this film worth watching are the acting and the cinematography. Bob Richardson continues to prove that he is one of the finest artists in the business.  Just look at the way the colors pop in almost all of the flashback scenes and the compare it with the dingy grays and browns that take place in the island.  The way he and Scorsese work together makes every movement of the camera seem important.  I love the way the camera whip-pans in the beginning of the film as one of the guards points out the three different wards.  The image of Michelle Williams standing next to a little girl as a car blows up and a fire rages behind them is now etched into my memory permanently and it’s frightening and gorgeous.

I think DiCaprio’s first outing with Scorsese, Gangs of New York, was not entirely successful.  But in the other three (The Aviator, The Departed and now Shutter Island) he’s been excellent.  He’s always had the boyish looks and a ton of charisma, but this is the first film where I watched him and felt like I was watching a real man, the kind of hero from a different era.  It’s not as complicated a performance or as subtle as the one he gave in The Departed nor is the degree of difficulty as high as The Aviator; but it is a performance that the whole film hinges on.  If DiCaprio rings false in any scene, then the whole movie falls apart and he assures that it doesn’t.  Mark Ruffalo is typically good in kind of a typical Ruffalo role.  Kingsley is similarly good, always a pleasure to see him.  Max von Sydow is excellent and Michelle Williams is flawless.

But ultimately – and I feel like a pretentious asshole for saying this – this is “minor” Scorsese.  And I don’t mean that in the sense that, “well, he’s not doing a three-hour long biopic so it’s clearly not a major work.”  I think of horror films and thrillers as being capable of great heights, but I just don’t think Scorsese hits those heights here as much as he might try.  He’s made a moody and atmospheric film that just doesn’t pop the way it should and that is too reliant on pulling the rug out from under you in the final minutes, but he’s already shown his hand too much by that point.

My biggest issues with the film were things that I didn’t think would be a problem with a Scorsese film; namely focus and point of view.  I think the focus of the film drifts too often, like the picture is trying to figure out what it’s supposed to be from moment to moment.  And the point of view is an issue that I don’t think Scorsese every truly got a handle on.  It’s tough to figure out, when looking back at the entirety of the movie, whether or not we’ve had an unreliable narrator.  But is this character really the narrator?  Are we seeing things through their eyes or are we seeing things play out the way they naturally would?  There are scenes and moments that suggest both.

This is certainly not the worst Scorsese film.  It’s not even in the bottom five (which would be, in order from worst to best, Bringing Out the Dead, New York New York, Cape Fear, The Color of Money, and Kundun).  But it’s probably at the bottom of the next tier of Scorsese films.  And considering that even the worst Scorsese picture is better than the average film, it shouldn’t be a bad thing when Scorsese doesn’t hit one out of the park.  And Shutter Island is a solid single and a stolen base, which is nothing to sneeze at.  But with Marty, we expect so much more.

Noah Forrest
February 22, 2010

Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon