A. O. Scott is wrong about Shutter Island

I still think, as I did a few days ago, that NYT film critic A. O. Scott’s review of Shutter Island, whether right or wrong,  is representative of the kind of snarky performance art that thrives in the internet age. But now that I’ve seen Shutter Island for myself, I’m ready to make a more substantive critique Scott’s review of the movie, and say that he is wrong on the merits. And don’t worry, I won’t spoil the movie any more than Scott does in his review.

Scott’s main complaint has to do with how Scorsese misleads the audience:

You begin to suspect almost immediately that a lot of narrative misdirection is at work here, as MacGuffins and red herrings spawn and swarm. But just when the puzzle should accelerate, the picture slows down, pushing poor Teddy into a series of encounters with excellent actors (Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley, Patricia Clarkson) who provide painstaking exposition of matters that the audience already suspects are completely irrelevant.

Mr. Scorsese in effect forces you to study the threads on the rug he is preparing, with lugubrious deliberateness, to pull out from under you. As the final revelations approach, the stakes diminish precipitously, and the sense that the whole movie has been a strained and pointless contrivance starts to take hold.

It’s unclear what Scott’s main complaint is here. Is his problem with the misdirection and red herrings that are immaterial to understand what is ‘really’ going on? Or is his problem with the misdirection and red herrings that are “strained and pointless contrivances” that “the audience already suspects are completely irrelevant”? Put differently, does Scott object to lying to the audience, or lying to the audience badly?

The distinction matters, and it’s hard to pin Mr. Scott down one way or the other. But for argument’s sake, let’s say his problem is with Scorsese’s lying and later pulling the carpet out from under the audience.

I’d like to defend narrative misdirection, since I think it gets a bad rap. Like A. O. Scott, one of my college roommate’s  main critique of some movies rests on his dislike of narrative misdirection. We used to have debates about movies like Fight Club, The Departed, and Sixth Sense, where the movie-maker clearly goes for the bait-and-switch method of story telling. After making us believe a certain set of facts by giving us a series of clues designed to lead to those conclusions, the director comes along and tells us those clues didn’t matter and actually something completely different is going on. I seem to recall that my roommate hated those narrative tricks because he figured a smart person should always have a chance of getting it right, and if that chance was denied by misdirection then the audience feels cheated and unengaged.

I agree that narrative misdirection can fail miserably. Lots of TV crime dramas suck for just that reason. But the problem there isn’t with misdirection itself, but with its overuse. I mean, how many times can we watch a cop follow up dead-end leads before finally getting the killer, before we get bored? Misdirection is a constitutive element of the cops and robbers genre, and as that genre has been beaten to death over the last 50 years of television and movies, it’s taken its toll on misdirection as a narrative tool, too.

Too bad. Misdirection can be great when it’s integrated into a plot as a necessary element. That’s one big reason why crime drama became so popular in the first place. And in the specific case of Shutter Island, Scorsese’s red herrings are enjoyable, integral parts of the plot. Scorsese didn’t fall back on weaving a rug only to pull it out from you just because it’s fun to fool people (although it is fun to fool people); Scorsese opted for red herrings because it’s a great way of bringing us into the questions of sanity and insanity, belief and evidence, perception and truth. Those are, after all, the central themes of the movie. Sure, Scorsese could have just come out and told us what was what at the opening, and then gone into an examination of Teddy’s exploits with the audience forewarned. But my sneaking suspicion is that such a story would quickly become tedious. Characterization through plot is better than characterization by direct description. So for certain types of characters, you can best bring them to life by straightforward presentations of reality. And for others – like those whose place in reality is uncertain – it’s best to characterize them by intentionally distorting the narrative reality.

Now, if A. O. Scott is really saying his problem is with artless misdirection, not misdirection itself, then all I can say is that I thought Shutter Island’s misdirection was artful enough to entertain me. Then again, I really liked both Water World and The Postman.


2 Responses to “A. O. Scott is wrong about Shutter Island”

  1. 1 sheila king April 27, 2010 at 4:31 am

    I agree 100 percent with this and would love to hear you talk more on why A.O. Scott’s review is basically wrong-headed from the get-go. For me it was like reading one of Anthony Lane’s essentially snarky non-reviews meant to impress us with how cleverly he can take apart anything if he wants to do so without actually reviewing what’s on the horizon (it is, after all, just so beneath him). One thing that annoyed the hell out of me was the way he made fun of the accents as if they really matter a helluva lot here. Maybe they were overdone, maybe not but if you aren’t from Boston or Mass., who the hell really gives a shite or can tell the difference? For the record, I thought they were okay. Still, he spent a good paragraph or two on just this one thing, as if he couldn’t think of anything better to connect with his imagined readership. Beyond that was his borderline contemptuous assertion that anyone (critics, etc.) who liked this film or gave it anything near a good review was somehow carrying Scorsese’s water. Funny coming from Scott, who seems to really enjoy carrying Clint Eastwood’s water. Anyhow, needed to get that out.

  2. 2 Nikki Buskell May 10, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    Many good points here and I’m glad I am not the only person to compare this film with the Sixth Sense. I personally enjoyed the movie, despite how I had guessed the direction it was going in from the trailer. Yet, there I was in the theatre anyway, so what does that tell you? (That I’m just addicted to film maybe)

    Just a thought though, which was a wonderful note to end the movie on: “Which would be worse, to live as a monster or to die as a good man?” – How brilliant. I sat up after he said that, when I suddenly realized the choice DiCaprio’s character had made. That’s all I will say. I’m ashamed I couldn’t even hold that in.

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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