These may be the only 2010 movies I have seen this year.  Even if that is not true they are easily the best of the year so far.  I am not too sure what else I have to say about Edge of Darkness beyond what I had said in the previous Cagematch. This is an easy fight to adjudicate: Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese: Goodfellas) wins.  Easily.

Based upon the trailers and how it was pushed I was expecting Shutter Island to be a horror film.However, being a Scorsese film made me doubt this was correct.  And sure enough, it is not a horror film.  The moment of the trailer that seemed terror-izing was not in the actual film.  I always have high expectations for a Scorsese film and my expectations would have been higher had I known this was not a horror film.  This movie, however, does not live up to my expectations.  It was gorgeous to watch and the story was engaging.  However, it was not as smart as I thought it would be.

Quai-spoilers below.  I will give away enough that it can change a first viewing of the movie but I will not disclose enough that it ruins it.  I hope.

The first problem I had with Shutter Island was its simplicity.  I knew during the opening scene what the story was, the rest of the film was merely filling in the arc with details.  I may have been alone though, as I heard the audience gasp when the reveal happened.  For anyone that has followed Hitchcock and De Palma this movie was too easy to decode.  This is not a fatal problem, as I doubt a non-cinaphile will decode it as quickly as I did.

The second problem, and a fairly catastrophic error, is that the fantasy of the movie is too close to the reality of the movie.  These fantasies are constructed to keep the subject safe from the reality, so it makes no sense that the fantasy would be close enough to reality that it can unravel.  This distinction is the brilliance that Lynch brings to filmmaking.  It is this distinction that also makes Lynch so difficult to watch as the movies are almost too disjointed to cohere.  This error of Scorsese’s is almost forgivable, except that he acknowledges this error in the movie. There is a second fantasy at work and it never comes close enough to the reality to unravel.  Why aren’t the characters in the movie smart enough to recognize this difference between these fantasies?

There is a sweet twist at the very end of Shutter Island, however.  My favorite character in The Matrix is Tank because of the honest and difficult decision he makes about his subjectivity.  This final wrinkle in Shutter Island was well done, even if it was done with a wink.

Not much of a Cagematch.   I am willing to alter my appraisal of Lost Highway (David Lynch: Twin Peaks) from the last post’s dismal showing.  I recently visited Ursa in upstate New York and he swears by the movie.  Upon reflection some things jump out at me, which is why each entrant is involved in 2 Cagematches, after all.  I purchased the its soundtrack; it is David Lynch (but where was the crazy guy from Mulholland Dr.?) so it deserves more respect than an initial impression grants; and Ursa, whose opnion I trust immensely, loves it.  Each of those are reasons to give it another think.

In the other corner.

Edge of Darkness (Martin Campbell: Casino Royale) was as expected and better in some respects.  The writing was tight, which is really a way of saying the characters were believably smart and aware.  The story is a typical revenge story, but well done.  And there is plenty of room for critical reads, which I will attempt now.

There are spoilers below.  You have been warned.

The story points to a corrupt collusion between the government (or, at the least, a rogue faction within) and an immoral business.  Typical Hollywood though, this is the wrong culprit.  In the recent issue of The New Yorker Megan O’Rourke has a really nice piece about grieving and the Fear of Death; this is the same phenomenon driving the movie.  The catastrophic preoccupation of the government has created the evil plot where nuclear weapons made from foreign materials has been commissioned by the US.  The plan is detonate these devices thus framing an-other, allowing military interventions.  The evil company has an employee that finds out and covertly admits activists in an attempt to expose the act.  Of course all of the acitivsts die.  And there is a cover-up.

At no point does the movie attempt to transverse the Fear of Death that grips Us.  Except once.  By the villain.  The villain is Bennet (head of the company) and he has the audacity to ask the deceased’s father, “What does it feel like?”  The whole audience, myself included, laughed at the discomfort.  But, this is the exact same reaction Kubler-Ross encountered as she interviewed terminal hospital patients about their impending deaths. Of course Thomas Craven (Mel Gibson: Braveheart) becomes terminally ill (poisoned by the same evil company, natch) and then does exactly what the fear of death tells us to do: honor the hero that can combat death by acting memorably.  However, this is not transgression but instead reification.

I am not a Mel Gibson fan, as I had fallen off that horse well after his nationalist trilogy (Braveheart, The Patriot, and We Were Soldiers).  His Sugar Tits incident did not come to me as a surprise.  But he works in this movie, if for no other reason than his character is unlikeable. It is not a stretch of the imagination that a Sugar Tits incident could have been part of the backstory.  In fact, his dislikability is even part of the story and the motivation for another character’s actions.

An interesting part of this movie is its misogyny.  Throughout the movie there are five women.  Three of them are minor lineless characters, all shown in laboring positions.  All three of them are treated as objects of scorn.  The other two women hold more important positions in the story and also suffer great amounts of pain, one even fatally, but in both cases the movie could have easily gone without their involvement.  The one woman that does die (the other might as well but her trauma is beyond the concern of the film), Craven’s daughter, has her most important appearance not as herself but rather as Death itself.  She whispers sweet nothings into Mel’s ear, convincing him that happiness lies on the other side.  Not that he is given a choice.  He is Jason drawn in by the siren’s call, but the siren is irrelevant as he has already been killed.  By a man.  The women of this movie are all Sugar Tits, irrelevant figures to be exposed as irrelevant despite the authority of their uniforms.

The O’Rourke article makes me wonder about some other things about the movie.  We never see Craven become poisoned.  We are supposed to infer that he has been since he behaves suicidly as he combats the enmy.  We do see him ill, symptoms reminiscent of his daughter’s illness before her brutal slaying.  However, O’Rourke identifies these same symptoms as fairly normal for the recently grief-stricken.  “Levels of stress hormones like cortisol increase.  Sleep patterns are disrupted.  The immune system is weakened.  Mourners may even experience loss of apetitie, palpitations, even hallucinations.” (68).  Maybe the father is so grief stricken that he is not being a hero to (supposedly) combat the Fear of Death but rather merely mourning in the way a macho asshole cop does.  O’Rourke again:

This model represents an American fantasy of muscling through pain by throwing ourselves into work” (70)

This grief lens also applies to Lost Highway as the key moment in the movie is a husband’s murder of his wife.  That reading is beyond the scope of this note, but it does make for an interesting future project.

Final verdict:  Lost Highway beats Edge of Darkness.  Unlike Book of Eli, however, Darkness was entertaining.  Like Avatar its production value was high, even if the rest of it was lacking.  There is, however, one memorable line: “sometimes you need to decide if you are the one hanging on the cross or the one nailing in the nails.”  I suspect the movie’s principals are confused, thinking they are the ones on the cross.  The real value for Darkness, though, is that opened up new paths to read Lost Highway.  When one is instrumental to the other how can it not be easy to determine the winner?

O’Rourke, Meghan.  (2010, February 1).  Good grief.  The New Yorker, 66-72.