Friday, April 9, 2010

Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island (2010)

Our first reaction to Shutter Island, Mrs. Sgt T and mine, was: hey, isn't that Peddocks Island? Sure enough, it was. That's a great place to go on a summer's day with a picnic lunch.

My overall reaction to the movie - my aesthetic reaction - i.e., did I like it or not... I did. I feel about it more or less the way Jim Emerson does. I don't feel it as sophisticatedly as him - I didn't make the specifical Hitchcock connection, shame to say - but even without getting the references you can get that it's a movie reveling in old-fashioned horror and melodrama. Doing it well, too, and I enjoyed that.

I'm not going to talk much about the twist (still: spoiler alert) except to say that it's delivered with exquisite balance. There are a lot of hints, but then again a lot of them are so in keeping with the melodramatic style of the movie that you're not sure when you're watching if they're really out of place details or just part of the overall stylization, or... The ambiguity in this film is quite thorough: there's always at least two explanations for anything.

What moved me most was how long this ambiguity was maintained. Right up to very near the end, I was able to convince myself that the twist wasn't really a twist, but a fake. The reveal is sudden, but at the same time very gradual in assuming the weight of reality. As a suspense builder it's great.

But what I'm more interested in, as a takeaway from the movie, is how this ambiguity contributes on a thematic level. The conspiracy theory of the first half is far-fetched, yeah, but is it really? The US government coopting ex-Nazis, carrying out nefarious research on captive populations, doing anything in the name of anti-Communism... That's not so far-fetched, is it?

The twist effectively denies this, doesn't it? It says that only an insane person would believe that, doesn't it? And that's a hard verdict to accept in 2010. That, more than anything, is what had me hoping right up to the end that Teddy was really Teddy, and not Andrew.

The stakes, in other words, are these. Either (a) the traumas of modern history are so bad that we can only survive by making up an elaborate fantasy reality to mask them - by willing ourselves to become insane - or (b) our internal lives are so fucked up that an elaborate conspiracy theory actually represents an improvement on real life. It's to the movie's credit that it avoids committing itself to one of these views for as long as it does.

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