Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Note: Although the following is an in-depth conversation regarding both of these films, I have kept it spoiler-free. Those of you who have not seen one or both of the films should feel comfortable reading this article without having your future viewing experience compromised.
Endless comparisons have been made between two of the year's most recent thrillers, and the reasoning is quite sound. Both Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer and Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island are works of two master directors in the latter stages of their career. However, Scorsese, now 67 years old, is making quality films at a remarkable clip, while Roman Polanski, at age 76, is still working at a relatively slower pace. Nevertheless, both filmmakers are two of the most respected of their time, and while their films contain both signature artistic elements, and experimentally newer ones, it is very clear to me which of the two films is superior, and I think it is a comparison worth indulging in.
Both of these films are, at their most basic, expertly-crafted thrillers. Both films also, in my opinion, contain twisty narratives that work out perfectly. At the end of both experiences, not only was I pleasantly surprised with the ending twists, but they also felt very logical to me, and that is a key element to a good thriller. No matter how outlandish a character's actions may seem (think back to Blood Simple for a second), as long as there is a believable logic behind those actions, I have no problem going along with it.
Another positive element both films contained was the performances. While actually comparing the tasks of Leonardo DiCaprio to Ewan McGregor would be a crime -- the former is asked to do much more -- it's safe to say that everyone involved in these films turns in quality work. Both films also contain memorable characters that appear for only one or two key scenes at the most, such as Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, and Emily Mortimer in Shutter Island, as well as Tom Wilkinson and Robert Pugh in The Ghost Writer.
The basic, fundamental element in which these two films differ is emotional impact. While The Ghost Writer is a film whose effectiveness relies almost exclusively on its chilling atmosphere and tricky narrative, Shutter Island is a film that doesn't only contain the previously-mentioned elements, but also has a fully-developed main character who is constantly trying -- and, in my opinion, succeeding -- at gaining the audience's sympathy.
To be perfectly honest, for all of its commendable qualities, I didn't give a lick about any character in The Ghost Writer. In the end, Shutter Island is just a much more ambitious film. It not only attempts to be a deceiving, twisty psychological thriller, but also an engrossing character study of a mentally disturbed man; something that has been a part of Scorsese's films for decades. It would be a limited response to say that Shutter Island is more emotional simply because of DiCaprio's insanely good portrayal, because even on paper (or in the novel, for that matter) this story is just as much of a character study as it is a mind-bending roller coaster, and it is also for this reason that I think this film will hold up beautifully with repeated viewings. I truly believe that a person could go into Shutter Island knowing every aspect of the twist ending and still have as powerful of an experience as I did.
Polanski's film is one that never makes any visible attempt to gain sympathy for any of its characters. No back-story is provided for McGregor's character, and although a back-story isn't necessary to create a sympathetic figure, I think it could have made an impact in this case. Polanski seems to have assumed that he can make an effective film simply out of surprise and style; however, it is a film without any real substance. I would be shocked if anyone comes out of The Ghost Writer having been affected emotionally on any level, and it is for that reason that I'm surprised so many people have fallen for this film. Say what you want about the flaws of Shutter Island, but the fact remains that it is at least trying to tell a story through a meaningful character.
Please share your reactions to either, or both of these films below. Based on initial reactions, I seem to be in the minority on this one, so opposing opinions are welcome as always. Which one did you prefer and why?