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Deliberatepixel / Noir Monday: Shutter Island

Noir Monday: Shutter Island

Shutter Island

I'm preempting the promised Brick edition of Noir Monday because I managed to get to the theater to see Scorsese's Shutter Island. Proper noir it may not be, but it uses enough classic noir elements - and deliberately so - that it's worth talking about. Also, it just happens to be a good film.

First off, let's get the spoiler alerts out of the way. There's a significant plot twist at the end of this film, and I'm not going to take pains to avoid it. If you're allergic that type of thing, read no further. But I'm not going to go much into covering the plot anyway, because I can't really be bothered. In case it isn't desperately clear by this point, I don't do formal film criticism, folks - it's just me tossing out some thoughts. You're welcome to toss yours back in return.

On one level, Shutter Island is a throwback B-movie thriller made with A-list talent. On another level, it's a throwback B-movie thriller made with A-list talent. Which is a convoluted way of saying you can enjoy it just as a stylish and skillfully-made thriller or as a cinematic love letter to the classic genre film. It's no towering epic or profound statement. It's a thriller, in the full, movie-definition sense of the word. It could have used a bit more editing and/or restraint in places. But, of course, had it been more edited and restrained, it, and the audience, wouldn't be able to revel in those B-movie indulgences that made it such a fun theater experience in the first place.

I'm on record for disdaining spoilers in general (I'll expand on that unpopular opinion at some point in the near future), but in this case I found it particularly interesting to know where the story was going to end up as it was unfolding. I had read the original Dennis Lehane novel, so I knew prior to watching the film that while Teddy Daniels was ostensibly trying to solve the case of the missing prisoner on an asylum island, he was in reality acting out his own insane fantasy, as part of an unorthodox medical plot to snap him back into his right mind. Watch it with this in mind, and you see the hints dropped along the way like breadcrumbs, and if you're watching the film with an eye for its construction and context, collecting these puzzle pieces is almost as entertaining an activity as watching as the story itself.

Scorsese reportedly showed the actors in the film not only the film noir classics Laura and Out of the Past (two of my absolute favorite films noir, both of which I absolutely will cover at some point in the future), but Jacques Tourneur's thrillers Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. Which makes perfect sense, because beyond the obvious noir touches, Tourneur's thrillers were the first inspiration source that came to my mind. All through Shutter Island stalks the unseen specter of some terror. We don't know what it is, but we expect it from all angles. As has been observed by Scorsese himself about the effectiveness of Cat People, we're much more scared of what we can't see than by what we can. All the graphic war memories don't match the fear that permeates Teddy's disintegrating sanity. And as all noir, and the best thrillers, end up, the danger comes from within.

Bits I especially liked: Sir Ben Kingsley's and Max von Sydow's performances. Seeing them each appear on screen was delicious. Also, Scorsese's talent for striking color, which I have always loved, is out in full force here.

In a recent Golden Globes retrospective of his work, Scorsese was quoted as saying: "Movies are the memory of our lifetime. We need to keep them alive." Shutter Island is a lot of the best memories of classic horror, thriller and crime film pulled together and twisted around a modern psychological sensibility. It keeps alive all the juvenile (in the best, purest sense of the word) joy we have in movies that scare and disturb us. It's why we still watch thrillers, and horror, and film noir, and celebrate their shadows. It reflects not only the dark side of our natures, but the simple, affirming entertainment we get out of being safe enough to play in those shadows for a little while and then leave them behind. Except - we don't really ever leave them behind. Which is good, otherwise these movie memories would lose their power, and we would lose important pieces of both our lighter and darker sides in one fell swoop.



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