Sunday, 14 March 2010

Reality distortion

Since cinema is a medium directed at our primary senses, it's one where, as a first approximation, we take things far more literally than in other media such as novels or the spoken word. As a result, tricks are available to a director to deliberately pull the wool over our eyes, and to present inaccurate or distorted versions of cinematic reality as if they were wholly bona fide.

Martin Scorsese's latest film, Shutter Island, uses a full range of such tricks. We have memories, false memories, dreams, hallucinations and even a further deception that I won't spoil. Practically no trick is left unused in this twisty tale of an escaped inmate in a secure island facility.

But using these tricks well is a difficult task which only a few films have successfully achieved. This is not one of them. By starting early, and using so many of them (or at least their hallmarks at first), the film makes the viewer skeptical from the get-go, so that the final outcome is much less of a surprise than intended. In fact, bar one unexpected but completely implausible angle, the tricks actually undermine the film. Anyone who's seen more than a handful of "reality distorters" will realise all too quickly that they're being fed a line, and the longer that the film twists on, it becomes more and more obvious what the underlying reality is.

I suspect that Scorsese was aiming for less and less obvious, or just more and more confusing, but it's abundantly clear what he's up to (if not in detail, certainly in broad sweep). One thing that the film did do for me was to remind me how much more skilful the likes of Mulholland Drive and The Sixth Sense are in this sort of game. Both of those are far more consistent, and restrained, in their use of "tricks", with considerably more satisfying results. Here, Scorsese has thrown everything onto the screen, but more really is less. Admittedly, the original novel may be the source of his problems, but what you can get away with in a novel is quite different for a film, and Scorsese should have known that.

Overall, probably a film better left unseen (or hallucinated).

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