Why Shutter Island Didn’t Work: Audience Expectation

Okay, okay, so it was based on a book. Let’s forget that and look at why this project didn’t work as a film.

There’s an adage about screenwriting that you shouldn’t write movies about a dream within a dream within a dream and then *ta da!* oops, you only imagined what you saw this whole time.

I’m a big believer in adages. Take these things to heart. Why is this adage on point?

Because people don’t want to sit through two hours of bullshit only to realize how clever the filmmakers were in duping them. It robs the viewer of their emotional journey. The filmmakers basically communicated at the end of this movie, “Oops, weren’t we so clever and weren’t you such a dumbass that you wasted 2 hours of your time watching this horsecrap!”

I didn’t go to this movie to be fooled and then ridiculed. I went to be thrilled and excited. There’s a big difference.

Some films that dupe the viewer can still be resonant if, when we get to the end, the film doesn’t rob us of the emotional journey. The dupe should actually reinforce the emotional journey of the protagonist – for example, The Sixth Sense accomplishes this really well, which is why the dupe in that project works and why people loved that movie. The dupe was a part of the protagonist’s journey – and as such, it wasn’t specifically contrived to trick the audience.

Books can do the duping thing with a degree more success than movies. I’m not totally sure why this is (perhaps I’ll think about it and address that specific question in a future blog), but I can say that film works with predetermined genre conventions and audience expectations.

If you deliver up Leonardo DiCaprio as the Big Period Hero, we want to get Big Period Hero. We don’t really want Leonardo DiCaprio Crazy Murderer Guy with no character arc. That’s just a downer.

Part of why we have specific genre conventions and formulaic storytelling modes in cinema is so that the audience can tap into the superconscious element of watching a movie. We’re not reinventing the wheel; we don’t want to have to think too hard. We are taking a familiar ride that we connect with intimately on an emotional level in order to be able to feel part of the human experience that we might not feel otherwise in our daily life.

That’s why we want to connect with the protagonist. We want the protagonist to be sympathetic. We want to love our hero and follow him on a hero’s journey, where he wins. Emotionally, that’s a fun journey.

At some point in this film (probably in the first ‘dream within a dream’ sequence wherein we meet the oddly thin, androgynous Michelle Williams dream wife, who is burned up and then bleeding from her midriff), I actually consciously thought, “Now this is fucking weird. What the hell is going on here?” We were in a straight ’50s period piece until this scene. This scene totally lost me. Actually, that scene to me felt sort of like it had been plucked directly from another movie. I was already confused.

I think something was lost in the moviemaking part of this journey that I (one of the viewing audience) actually didn’t want to step into the mind of this protagonist as hero/antihero. I didn’t need to emotionally relive the wife drowning the children, or the shooting of the wife, or the multiple-multiple-multiple cycles of crazy. I actually didn’t need to connect into that energy as a human being. I’m not sure how the book made this work, but the movie didn’t.

In my theatre, about 10 people walked out. I very rarely see people actually walk out of movies, but so many people walked out of this movie that it was hard not to get distracted by it. I noticed the first people walk out when the creepy Michelle Williams appeared, bleeding from the midriff, the second time. We saw her bleeding from her midriff and holding herself around her abdomen – and I actually wondered if she had lost a baby. I know, I know, sort of stupid, but I’d wondered if someone had sliced open her abdomen while pregnant – something to this effect. I wonder if other people were thinking this too, because I am here in New Mexico, a politically conservative state, and whenever Michelle and the bleeding abdomen came on screen, more people walked out of the theatre.

Also, in the dream flashes, they became so melodramatic and over the top that people in my theatre started laughing. As I said, the film emotionally lost me in that first dream-dream-dream sequence, and so once we had a good handful of them, people didn’t know what to feel except, “what the fuck IS this?” and that’s when we got laughter at something that was clearly not intended to be funny.

The magical Patricia Clarkson in a cave scene was so trite to me – not only because this was such a literal nod to Wicker Man – but also because this was exactly that scene where the writer was going to start explaining to us what the hell was really going on here. And, not only do we get one enormously huge turd of exposition, we get another one directly after with the Ben Kingsley scene. I was actually thinking, “Please let there be something more.” But, nope, these (completely obvious and tired) scenes were the Big Reveal. SIGH. (Really, Martin? Really?)

I had real problems with the theme and tone of this movie, but its biggest failure was in not delivering the character arc. In the final scene, Leo says something to the effect of, ‘I’d rather die as a hero than live as a monster.’

First of all, it was unclear to me that he was living as a monster. Murdering one’s wife as retribution for killing one’s three children is a viable (and I would argue not unsympathetic) character choice. He murders the wife and then has to take responsibility, so they send him to the mental hospital. Fine. He made a horrible mistake and is trying to make good. We can all understand this on some level. Does this automatically make him a horrible monster?

But, where did we get the hero part? It was heroic of him to strut off in the end to get his lobotomy? That’s heroic?! I didn’t get it. It would have been a much more interesting choice, in my opinion, to deliver on the character arc and have it be a complete mystery – crazy or not – until he dies in the line of duty, trying to protect someone else for heroic reasons, and then the twist at the end is that he was a patient there all along. That would have delivered upon the character arc and been emotionally resonant.

But as my friend said last night, “Why not just have him be a cop? It would have been such a better movie.” Yes, my friend, and we’re right back to Wicker Man. Yes. Exactly. SO much better.

Look, I get it that there was probably a deeper meaning in that last scene of the movie wherein he chose getting a lobotomy because he didn’t want to be tormented anymore by his actions. One might argue that this choice was heroic. It didn’t translate in the film. It wasn’t clear either way. And, still, not established as a heroic choice.

Shutter Island is thus a really good reminder that if one completely laughs in the face of audience expectation, it’s probably not going to bode well for the movie.

6 Responses to Why Shutter Island Didn’t Work: Audience Expectation

  1. 19 Hertz April 21, 2010 at 5:49 pm #

    I just saw the movie myself. And it was pretty awful.

    But I’d like to pick one point you may have missed out on. He thought of himslf as a monster because he believed he was responsible for his kids deaths because of his inaction. He knew his wife was loopy but he didn’t get her treatment.

    That’s why he considered himself a monster & couldn’t live with it any more.

    But in the end – the movie sucked big time.

  2. pat August 26, 2010 at 10:39 am #

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Everybody I knew who saw it told me how great it was and how amazing the “twist” was, but I found myself asking the exact same question as your friend. The first Act was so promising, and then it all fell apart. The exposition at the end particularly annoyed me. What a fucking cop-out.

    I hadn’t picked up on the likeness it shares with The (much superior) Wicker Man until reading your post just now, and it makes me even angrier, because it points out just how good this film could have been if it had gone in the right direction.
    I’ll admit, it had an atmosphere I quite enjoyed, though as with yourself it faded for me when Leo had his first dead wife dream.

    COP-OUT!

  3. Monica August 28, 2010 at 12:05 pm #

    What can I say? Great minds think alike! I know a lot of people went to see this movie because it was big marketing, Scorsese and DiCaprio, based on the book, and people thought it was going to be cool. I don’t know if I know many people who didn’t think it was cheesy. It could have been more layered and nuanced, with more twists, but whatever. It wasn’t. We’re all ripe for a few new good thrillers with some real psychological turns. Get writing, people!

  4. Lonnie September 9, 2010 at 8:52 am #

    Oh I soooo agree and so happy to have found your blog. This movie has actually haunted me since I saw it. So many people that it was fantastic and I did not, what was wrong with me? What did I miss? Scorsese and Leo, what a mix and a movie that makes you think with a plot twist, I should LOVE IT, but I didn’t. I thought maybe if I read the book, or watched the movie again I’d pick up on something but do I really want to go through the torture again? Not really. I did see the ended a bit differently than you did though, which I wanted to like but found way too many holes in the plot to make it work either way. I think there were a lot of hints to show that he was indeed a cop and very sane but came across the secret to the Island and was going to be admitted as crazy. There was a point that they said that if you are called crazy long enough then you will start to believe it (or something like that). There was also the patient (that seemed pretty sane) that warned him to get away but only after his “partner” left. There were many other clues but mostly the one about him being the most dangerous prisoner there, yet they let him off the island to act out this “therapy” and hope to cure him while having free range of the island. I don’t buy that. I think in the end, he is sane but knows he’ll never get off the island and chooses to die a hero as the cop he was than live as a monster which he would be if he admitted that he was the person they were turning him into and slowly go crazy. (I actually like this scene for that reason, maybe my favorite of the movie) I hope that this makes sense, however I believe the movie was left to make you “think” which way was it, was he really crazy, was he not? Either way I found way to many holes in the story to make either believable and that’s what I don’t like. I don’t mind a movie that leaves it up to you to decide, but fill in the holes. I feel that once the “twist” is out there, you should be able to go back and see how clever it all was (the sixth sense did this so well) but you can not do that here, at all. OK, I’ve rambled on long enough but really wanted to get that off my chest! 🙂 Thank you for your blog, I don’t feel so alone now! 🙂

  5. Monica September 9, 2010 at 11:27 am #

    Hey, Lonnie. Thanks for your comment. I see exactly what you’re saying – that you took away the other 50/50 scenario. That he was an actual agent that they were trying to make think was crazy. I think this was the red herring story. But actually this movie would have been much more interesting if he actually had been an agent who did think he was crazy, or going crazy, but then rebounded. But his emotional journey didn’t track with this story.

    I felt it was fairly definitive that the war broke him and then returning home to a woman who killed their children pushed him over the edge. I’m forgetting the details now (blocked it out because it was so bad) but didn’t he kill the wife after she killed the kids and that was why they sent him to the loony bin? That story is pretty contained. They just cloaked it, to make it solidly a thriller (as opposed to a character drama), in the premise of his having fooled himself into believing he was the hero (FBI), when actually he wasn’t. He was the baddie.

  6. Monica September 19, 2010 at 11:48 pm #

    Just a quick follow up about this. I spoke with someone recently who had read the book, and she indicated that it was definitive in the book that he was a crazy patient – it was not that he was really an FBI agent who was duped into thinking that he was crazy, but rather a crazy person playing that he was law enforcement. This is what I took away from the film.

    However, your point is well taken still. Perhaps the people who actually liked this movie didn’t understand it, either. It reminds me of when I went to see “The White Ribbon” and found it so wholly devoid of content that I spent hours brainstorming viable alternative content that one may well have read into the film. I came up with some pretty interesting viable alternatives, but then my friend just said, ‘No, Monica. You just have to accept that there was no mystery there. It sucked.’