Tom Jolliffe double bills Inception and Shutter Island…
In my latest double bill we’re gonna kick it back a nice round decade to 2010. Leonardo DiCaprio, much as he still is, was one of the biggest stars on the planet. He wasn’t new to working with Martin Scorsese at this point and earlier in the year the pair released Shutter Island. Given a couple of their previous team ups being more critically acclaimed and more wide in scope, Shutter Island seemed to be greeted by critics rather lukewarmly.
Shutter Island was an early Spring release doing decent business. Inception came out a few months later in the summer season and further cemented Christopher Nolan as one of blockbuster cinemas few directors who could, I suppose, blend what Scorsese would call ‘cinema’ with the elements that Marty would refer to as ‘theme park.’ High brow film with jaw dropping spectacle. It marked DiCaprio’s first Nolan gig.
On the surface, both Teddy Daniels (his Shutter Island character) and Cobb (Inception) both tread similar themes. Both are coming to terms with horrible tragedy and the death of their spouses, through some hefty repression. Whilst the two films cross similar psychological caveats with their protagonist, they’re vastly different as a whole, but regardless make a great double bill.
Nolan’s penchant for the intellectually challenging and high concept has certainly seen him create ambitious films that perhaps belie the genres and outlines he’s worked in. Would anyone have expected a film about warring magicians to be quite so complex as The Prestige was? Even more so, some ideas get into the realm of the ludicrous almost, yet Nolan makes everything seem to have a logic.
Inception sees DiCaprio’s Cobb as a dream infiltrator. Whether obtaining information or implanting an idea. In dreams, through inception, an idea can be placed deep inside the mind of an individual which is buried to a point it can only possibly feel like their own when that idea comes out. Now of course if you have your own idea, you’re more likely to follow it rather than if you’re told to.
Nolan’s insistence to use as much practical vfx work as possible also adds to the spectacular nature of the action in this film. The CGI when used, blends seamlessly into a film where dream worlds create extraordinary visual paradoxes, with a lot of sensational practical effects. A spinning corridor in apparent zero gravity was done without CGI or wires, and even if the idea of using a rotating rig seems like overkill in an age where the computer could just fake it, Nolan’s insistence creates shots more spectacular than a full CG shot would have been. Inception has loads of great action.
Here’s the thing. I think it’s a brilliant film, but I’ve always found it a touch overrated. The emotional side is perhaps a little lacking as it’s a touch more on the nose. Sometimes Nolan’s films can feel cold, or the emotion can feel over done. Likewise, though the idea is intriguing and this has oodles more intellect than the vast majority of blockbuster films, Nolan is afforded the kind of cardinal screenwriting sins that perhaps only Tarantino and a few others are also afforded. In his case, the film has a hell of a lot of scenes of still exposition just so we’re all very well versed on how the ideas work and just where exactly things stand when there’s a dream within a dream within a dream…within a dream. Joseph Gordon Levitt is essentially one of those video game training mode tutors that pops up to explain everything. He serves no other purpose. Ellen Page isn’t afforded that much more character. Tom Hardy appears and has little depth, but regardless has masses of scene stealing charisma.
As Cobb, DiCaprio is good. I do get the sense that having done this so soon after Shutter Island, and with some retreading, that he’s doing a lot of surface work, but the more intricate subtleties aren’t quite as apparent. He’s decent, but he’s been better in other films, notably in Shutter Island.
That aside, Inception, for some of its flaws and a plot that by the time it gets as deep into its layers as it can, gets a bit numbing, is still about the most visually spectacular action film Nolan has made. The craft and subtlety of the script isn’t as high as The Dark Knight (nor is anyone as immensely magnetic as Heath Ledger was) but there’s masses of action and oh boy what action!
Shutter Island is an interesting one. Given the more epic and seemingly ambitious projects Scorsese did around that time, such as The Aviator or The Departed, Shutter Island almost seems like one of the pulpy asides he did through the 80’s (or indeed like Cape Fear in 1991). Critics weren’t blown away. In fact I wasn’t initially blown away.
Here’s the rub…Shutter Island needs two viewings or more. You need time to go back a re-watch anew, and to take in the masterful weaving of a director in his pomp. The script is also great. If I’ve felt Inception to be a pinch overrated, then I’ve always found Shutter Island to be pretty underrated. It’s not as loose or flighty an aside as some initially assumed. It wasn’t Scorsese letting loose with a free wheeling jazz approach. Not entirely. He’s playing plenty of homage to old noirs, to Hitchcock, to old Euro Thrillers, but he’s still got an impeccable grip on proceedings. Nothing is carefree or out of place. Like many greats his attention to detail here is second to none.
Visually the film is glorious. The soundtrack is fantastic. It plays out the mystery aspect beautifully as Teddy Daniels investigates the disappearance of a female inmate at a notorious asylum (and slowly begins to unravel a greater mystery). This is a film that really should have clocked in a lot of Oscar nominations, but didn’t get any kind of attention.
The biggest strength of the film? Leonardo DiCaprio! I think it’s one of his most underrated performances and when you re-watch (after knowing the final ‘twist’) you start to see extra subtleties in his performances. Nuances that on first viewing might have seemed off or odd in that moment but make more sense once you know the end. Likewise, in some of those moments of clarity that his character has, or moments when he really feels his loss and the tragedy of losing his family, DiCaprio is absolutely gut-wrenching. As I said of Inception, he’s good. He’s just not got those layers (and there’s more heart in the screenplay here I suppose too) that he has in Shutter Island, and there’s a lightness of emotional touch that Scorsese has over Nolan. DiCaprio has rarely been as great as he is here.
Let us know your thoughts on Shutter Island and Inception. Which is your favourite? Hit us up in the comments below or on our twitter page @flickeringmyth
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch) and Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/