Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Nightmare on Shutter Island

Let me make it clear that I'm a big, fat, salivating fan and admirer of Martin Scorsese, the director who has given the world many classics such as The King of Comedy, Goodfellas, Casino, The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, Mean Streets, The Departed, and the current Shutter Island. I have no personal axe to grind against Marty and his towering talents. His place in cinematic history is untouchable.

That said, I didn't much like Shutter Island.

There are certain cinematic tropes that I have grown to despise. Each year, these rotten, tired devices from lazy minds annoy me a little bit more. Probably because each year I'm living longer with them and they're (unfairly) going to outlive me.

One of my pet cinematic hates is dream sequences. I don't mind material that is dream-like, but I want to kick a skull when a scene is building to a head and suddenly, viola!, a character snaps awake or sits up in their bed looking frazzled and fried. We then know that we've been watching the character's dream. We've been conned.

Well, I say Fuck your stupid dream sequences, they suck elephant dick! The very idea of a dream sequence is sucky to me. Not only does it permit the filmmaker to write checks they can't cash, but it gives marketers an opportunity to shove irrelevant scenes into a trailer that really have nothing to do with the meat of the movie they're selling. It makes for sloppy writing, too, because writers chuck stuff into the mix that they couldn't logically include in the central narrative. That's what bothers me most. Like I said, I'm all for dream-like, bizarre, crazy imagery, but why not come up with an original story that can logically incorporate this imagery. Or sell us a world where grotesque, terrifying events are part of the furniture. If it can't be logically incorporated into the world of your script, perhaps IT DOESN'T BELONG IN THE FUCKING MOVIE.

I guess I was never cut out for Shutter Island, or stories of its ilk; it's masturbation material for dream sequence lovers everywhere, and if you're one of those, you'll spill a gallon of spunk beating off to what Scorsese does with uncommon relish here. If you haven't seen the movie yet, stop reading right now because I'm going to allude to content that could be deemed spoiler-ish.

Film opens with Leonardo Di Caprio and Mark Ruffalo on a boat on a misty bay. Very picturesque. Moody. Dream-like. Shutter Island, a prison for loonies, emerges from the soup. Di Caprio and his partner have arrived to investigate the disappearance of a prisoner. We know something strange is afoot because everybody on the island is either too nice or too evasive. The body of the movie involves the investigation. Although the premise is not lacking for drama, no muscle is exercised resisting a plethora of dream sequences and dreams within dreams within dreams. Di Caprio snaps awake often, bolts upright, and is left in a sweat by a shitload of dream sequences before the film hits its lengthy run time.

In fairness, Di Caprio's dreams and mental wanderings have much to do with the film's "twist", but I didn't care for it one bit. Nothing felt particularly original or compelling, either. I'd seen it all before without dreams. What this movie provoked in me was a strong desire to see a different movie.

Not surprisingly, the film's technical accomplishments are monumental, but so they should be when you're spending close to a hundred million dollars. The performances are strong, the island setting is potent with mood and texture, and the music, a compilation of many movie scores assembled with the assistance of Robbie Robertson, is a thing of beauty. Unfortunately, the film made me yearn for a story in which characters face assorted demons in a state of wakefulness. In dream sequences, you can throw in any old crap and justify its existence. It is the very ease in which this can be done that bothers me most. When a character snaps out of a dream, I never believe that the dream was so vivid it remained with them. For the most part, dreams are incoherent and mostly forgotten after we've emerged from them. I simply don't buy the whole idea. Hollywood's representation of dream states has us much credibility as how it depicts what one sees through a pair of binoculars.

Although I liked Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street, I fancied the 'Elm Street' part far more than the 'Nightmare'. I liked the opening scene where Freddy sharpens his tools and gets ready to take revenge. When I learned that he'd do it in dreams, my hopes scattered like dried leaves, and I was forced to suffer one incoherent set piece after another. I wanted to see the real Freddy butchering the real parents who burned him. I didn't believe a moment of him doing it in dreams. I guess I prefer waking nightmares.

Shutter Island's Leonardo Di Caprio is living a nightmare, but it's not a nightmare that excited me.

Just a personal opinion based on my own likes, dislikes, and personal preferences, of course. But isn't one's reaction to every movie just that?


  1. You sound like me and voice-over narration. Had I known about your strong dislike of dream sequences, I would have warned you beforehand.

  2. Mike -- I hadn't read the book, so wasn't expecting so many DQ's. I'm not entirely against voice-over. I really like it in I STAND ALONE and ANGST. For me, best when it's totally ironic.

  3. a pious atheists virtuous indignationMarch 3, 2010 at 11:06 AM

    I dont agree, when i watch a film i just want to see endless Bizarre, Surreal, Spectacular, Odd, Strange, Weird, Astonishing and Incredible imagery (its what cinema and the medium of the moving image in general should always be all about). To me it dosen`t matter whether or not its done within the context of "a dream Sequence" or a supposed "reality sequence" (besides what does that mean anyway when we`re talking about the total and utter un-reality of movies). As long as the images are Bizarre, Surreal, Strange etc etc, thats all i require from a movie.

  4. Jervais/A Pious -- you don't agree with what? I like non-stop bizarre, too, but I'm tired of it being shoved into dream sequences so we are constantly seeing characters snapping awake and recovering from nightmares. Why the constant switching back and forth? It just gets annoying.

    If it's boring, I require more than Strange. If it's not boring, fine.

  5. The only hope I hold out for this movie is that I thought the book was really lame, and that bad books often make good movies.

    As for dream sequences, I understand your rage in movies like this, where they seem to heighten the Gothic melodrama abut have little to do with the story itself. However, I felt TV's "The Sopranos" had quite good dream sequences because they were usually quite well-related to the events at hand, and showed how the subconscious mind of whichever character was dreaming dealt with daily problems. The talking fish? Brilliant.

  6. the posturing (and admittedly rather irritating) little popinjayMarch 4, 2010 at 7:42 AM

    Like i said i just want to see endless incredible special effects irrespective of the context, i dont give a toss about characters or story anymore. By the way, what makes you think that "a pious atheists virtuous indignation" and "jervaise brooke hamster" are one and the same person?, perhaps they`re all different people but housed in the same mind.

  7. Will -- very good points, and exceptions to the lame use of the concept.

    Yes, THE SOPRANOS worked hard to keep the two thoroughly connected.

  8. What do you think of Gilliam's BRAZIL? IMO one of the best, most devastating uses of a dream sequence.

    SHUTTER ISLAND was enjoyable for its techical brilliance and Max von Sydow, but the twist was pretty awful, I wish they would still make thrillers that tell a story honestly.

  9. "I guess I prefer waking nightmares" - what a great quote and great point you make there. Dream sequences have always been a huge peeve of ours. It's such a convenient and simple way to appeal to big audiences with visually creative imagery without having to expect them to use any imagination or open mindedness in terms of abstract and surreal cinema. "ah-HA! Haha! It was a dream, dude I get it!!!" (and everytime I hear this I feel a bit mire like strangling them not just in my dreams..). It's like a platform to give them an excuse to show something striking without having to tie it into anything real. Real artists are able to use images like those but in context. No one waking up after. Like jodorowskij. Or Ken Russel. Of course these directors would just piss the masses off as they actually expect their viewers to appreciate art and maybe actually tap into their intellect or subconcious to enjoy it. Stupid people hate being confronted with things they do not understand, and become reactionary against it instead with anger as defense. Because everything has to make SENSE. And the twist in this movie - how many times has this been dine? Saw a low budget horrorcalled "madhouse" with pretty much the exact same story and "twist" just a couple nights ago. I guess to understand why these "twists" are used so much (kind of expected more of scorsese though..:() is to look at the demographic these films are made for. Non-thinking, non-creative carbon copies who like things served to them neatly and easily digestible. Dreams - oh yeah, that was cool looking and I get it now! Oh and so HE was the nutty one!!! Ugh. Seeing this done yet again and hearing the audience in shock and revelations pissed me off and made me feel even less conncted to everyone around me. Dreams are a cop out. I squirm during those gasp-y wake-up-to-the-real-world moments. "waking nightmares" I love that - you summed it up for us, mark! Thank god there are a few people who see through the smoke screens. -tora (future movie-ranter yay!;))

  10. Hi Mark,
    Great post. My problem with Shutter Island was that the "twist" was so early and so obviously telegraphed that it completely evaporated any sense of suspense or drama. Had they revealed it at say the end of the first act, they could have subverted it a couple more times and perhaps really had you guessing as to which reality, DiCaprio's or Kingsley's, would ultimately emerge as the truth. But as it is, it just feels like an incredibly lazy script and overly signposted film. So yes, for me the dream sequences were essentially useless in working to create this dual reality schism, and the film suffers for it.

  11. The problem with dream sequences is that they lost their effectivness a long time ago because they are done so often. Especially in horror movies the dream/hallucination is done to death.
    But unfortunatly it has become a standard tool in filmmaking. The viewer is requested to just suspend his disbelief. It is the same like those "Cold Case" crime shows where everybody remembers that they ate a cookie before lunch on a tuesday 38 years ago. Everybody knows that this is pure nonsense, but for those tales it has become a pillar of story structure. The same goes for the dream sequence. It is in most cases just nonsense and often just a crutch because otherwise the actual story isn´t strong - or long - enough to carry the movie.

  12. I think you'll be pleased to see that while I disagree with your assessment, you provided me the spark to my latest dissection:


  13. I thought it, like the vast majority of Scorsese's work this decade, was good, but not great. Only GANGS OF NEW YORK (and even that has big problems) has enticed me in the last ten years, everything else has been very entertaining but his movies just lack a certain power that he used to pour into his movies.

    It's amazing, not one member of the famous 70s Hollywood film school brat pack (Lucas, Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, DePalma) makes films like they used to anymore. Scorsese has kept it up the best and held on the longest. And SHUTTER ISLAND felt like a much better, more cohesive version of RAISING CAIN.

    I don't mind dream sequences. If people have bad dreams that they wake up from in real life and story calls for that, how the heck are we gonna depict it if not in that way? I'm just sick of bad, shallow screenplays and poor stories which dream sequences do, admittedly, often inhabit.

  14. One of my personal cinematic technique pet peeves in moviedom are "wipes" and tacky optical transitions. Unless it's for comedic reasons, I just find them jarring and tacky. SEVEN SAMURAI is impeccable, but the wipes that the film is filled with hurt the flow a bit. Hard or jump cuts are the only way to end a scene, IMO.