Shutter Island? I don’t even *know* her island!

by zunguzungu

In what I am attempting to make into a weekly feature — using a variety of different forms of coercion, including threats to never return his John Ford box set — I bring you Scrimshander, as he regards the modern cinema:

In Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese attempts to elevate a novelty puzzle-thriller, with an unreliable hero and a big twist ending, to the pitch of high tragedy. The film begins aboard a ferry en route to an island asylum where, naturally, one of the patients has escaped without a trace. In the role of Teddy Daniels, the detective assigned to investigate this McGuffin, Leonardo DiCaprio enters the film with a bout of self-referential seasickness, former king-of-the-world kneeling to the porcelain god of abjection. The case goes nowhere (all kinds of gothic creepy nowhere, under handsome light) as a series of traumatic dreams supplies the Sartrean subtext of Teddy’s weak stomach and prefigures the rude awakening that awaits him in the fifth act (a hideous secret dragged out of his past, the riddle of the island solved, etc). On paper at least, this type of plot sounds like a good match for Scorsese’s hallucinatory mise-en-scene (slow glides and aggressive cuts) and his affinity for portraits of suppressed rage. In practice, at least this time out, the familiar machinery of the puzzle-plot drains the urgency from Scorsese’s style precisely because it is positioned to absorb his contributions as relatively indifferent ornaments.

The real twist is that the whole film feels like it ought to be happening on an Xbox, which is principally an effect of how the puzzle-plot paces the action. This kind of storytelling, with exposition delivered by a series of half-hallucinated crazies and hints embedded in a set of recurring objects, each with some fetishistic significance, has been thoroughly co-opted by videogames, a medium in which the ability to deliver narrative in short modular bursts between sequences of exploration makes a lot of sense, as does the completion bonus of a twist-ending for diligent players. This affinity does not disable the film by any means, but it does make it far more difficult to watch with a sympathetic eye. Incidentally, anyone who has played through Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, a high-concept remake of the 1999 horror game, will experience intense déjà vu throughout Shutter Island, not least when a mysterious lighthouse becomes the focus of the hero’s attention, leading him to swim out from the shore to learn the nasty truth. The game retells the hero’s traumatic back-story during this swim in a series of preposterous underwater dioramas, while the film is mercifully content with the allegorical image of Teddy taking the plunge.

In videogames, broadly speaking, grandiose meta-level plot-twists tend to expose the ethical difference between players and their avatars by sweeping away the ready-made motives that have underwritten pleasurable hours of virtual slaughter: we’re sorry, your virtue is in another castle. Whether this effect is self-consciously artsy (Metal Gear Solid 2), incidental to sensationalism (Max Payne), or both (Bioshock) hardly matters. Even when the twist is unspeakably dumb, this kind of showy narrative dislocation is at least closely tied to the nuts and bolts of gaming, a narrative vehicle (when it is a narrative vehicle) built around the pleasures and permutations of a relatively small set of possible behaviors. Asking what it means to pull the trigger in room after room becomes a source of ready-made pathos (whether richly or cheaply developed) when the game character isn’t really good for anything else. Perhaps for this reason, the trend toward meta-fiction in gaming has roughly coincided with a series of games such as Oddworld, Fable, Mass Effect, and again Bioshock that generate different endings and in-game effects based on the player’s choices. In film, meanwhile, Shymalan-style twists threaten to reduce narrative to a game-like exercise in which formal unity becomes an end in itself, poetics without poetry, hypertensive Aristotelianism. Scorsese’s film weathers this threat intact but not unscathed. The big scene of reversal and recognition schematizes the plot it ought to complete. Great graphics, though.