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.