Shutter Island

Thursday, October 14th, 2010 Horrorthon Posts / Horrorthon Reviews

(2010) **

I don’t know what can be done about movies like Shutter Island, because there’s no getting rid of them—they occupy one corner of the horror movie game board as permanently as low-budget splatterfests occupy another. As long as people get involved in the intellectual implications of scare stories (like, on blogs for communal discussion of horror movie reviews) there will always be high-toned feedback into the art itself, so that movie characters can turn to each other and engage in deep conversations about “the nature of man” and “evil”—questions which, for the characters, have a greater-than-usual urgency (which is supposed to be the point). Is “man” a “killer”? (My meager “debating” training in school taught me never to answer trick questions.) I’ll bet you any amount of money that we’re not going to find out…but, by the end of the movie, we sure will have mulled over the question as gravely and fussily as possible, which will mean a very bleak outlook on everything—a social service for which we have the moviemakers to thank.

The last time I saw one of these movies—“philosophy of the horror story” movies—it was The History of Violence, and I absolutely hated it but I had trouble defining just what it was that made me so angry and irritated by the movie and its enthusiastic response. (“Angry enough…TO KILL?”) Seeing Shutter Island helped be figure out what the problem is, so I have a better understanding of why History of Violence and so many other movies of this type are so annoying to me.

I am actually very interested in thinking about actual evil, violence and aggression, the “need” for fear (from an animal-cunning standpoint) and the dark side of the psyche. I’d happily have (or listen to, or read) that discussion all day and all night. But that’s because I’m perfectly safe right now; nobody is chasing me with sniper rifles across the shattered, frozen clifftop rocks on the seaward face of a storm-drenched coastal island. I’ll have any conversation anybody wants to have about the duality of human nature because leisure time is the appropriate venue for that kind of abstract discussion. “Is ‘Man’ a ‘killer’?” is a question to be asked across a big oak table in a university-town bar, once everybody’s gotten their next round. The guy who actually kills me isn’t going anywhere near the topic…I’m pretty sure of that.

This all sounds obvious, but somebody must disagree or these movies wouldn’t get made. I’m sampling from a longer-form argument, but suffice it to say that people who aren’t comfortable with horror can’t get all the way through a horror movie without getting so put off and disgusted that it becomes necessary to remind them, out loud, of why they’re in the theater—of why they agreed to put themselves through this. The characters who deliver ethical lectures are speaking directly to those moviegoers, reassuring them that all of Leonardo DiCaprio’s profound suffering is an important mirror for their own, shared existential unease (and not just gratuitous sadism, which is what a horror movie looks like to a non-horror fan, which is why they think we’re “desensitized”).

I could go through the setup and the murky atmospherics and the various clever switchbacks but none of it really matters because the movie uses these elements disrespectfully; you can tell that the filmmakers are groping for some kind of aesthetic epiphany because they’re not operating from any natural love of the scary story (or any visceral grasp of why this script reached their desks; why somebody found it compelling). When Martin Scorsese is bad (as he is here) he’s just awful, because he purposefully abandons his natural rhythms and talents out of a misplaced “formal” obedience to the foreign genre environment. (And Scorsese is one of the few directors who should stay completely away from digital effects; he just doesn’t “get” them and the results are always baroque and overcooked, like he’s never seen the stuff before and thinks it’s great.)(Unlike Spielberg, who can flood the whole screen with ILM without you noticing.) If he really dug horror movies, he wouldn’t worry about it; he’d know that you can wander across the spectrum of vastly different styles of filmmaking and still hit “horror movie” right on the money every time, if you genuinely get what a scary movie is, what it’s for. If Scorsese liked horror, he might relax, stop lecturing and apologizing and lifelessly reproducing the genre’s stodgiest, most traditional dance steps, and make a good one.

[bonus Oscar Goldman exploding briefcase action here and here]