The Verdict on This Weekend's Movies: Scorsese vs. Polanski

  • Publish Date: February 18, 2010
  • Comments: ↓ 5 user comments

Our weekly roundup offers a brief look at this week's new film releases. For a full selection of reviews for these and many more films, visit Metacritic Movies. [Scores updated 2/20 12:05p]

A good movie? Even two?

Anyone who had Week 8 in the "When will the first good movie of 2010 appear?" pool will be happy to see the arrival of Martin Scorsese's thriller Shutter Island this weekend, which so far has the highest Metascore for any wide release film debuting this year. Movie fans residing in Los Angeles and New York have the added treat of another well-reviewed thriller by another legendary, Oscar-winning director: Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer. Let's take a closer look at these two films.

This Week's Major Releases, Head to Head
Movie Release Rating Genre Metascore Critic Grades Users
Shutter Island WIDE R Thriller 61 23,7,4 7.3
The Ghost Writer LIMITED PG-13 Thriller 76 14,4,0 n/a
Compare to the "best" from recent weeks:
Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief 2/12 PG Teen Fantasy 47 8,17,4 6.5
Dear John 2/5 PG-13 Romance 43 4,24,5 6.2
Edge of Darkness 1/29 R Thriller 55 17,14,3 7.1

Shutter Island 61

Martin Scorsese's Last 5 Films
The Departed (2006) 86
The Aviator (2004) 77
Gangs of New York (2002) 72
Bringing Out the Dead (1999) 70
Kundun (1997) 72

Not usually known for scares, Martin Scorsese helms this suspenseful horror-thriller based on the Dennis Lehane novel and set in a creepy mental hospital during the 1950s. Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo star as a pair of U.S. marshals summoned to the fortress-like hospital to investigate the disappearance of one of its inmates. The film was originally scheduled for an October 2009 release, but was delayed for financial reasons.

While Shutter Island may not be among Scorsese's best films -- in fact, it's his lowest-scoring film from at least the past 22 years (Metacritic's database contains only a few of his films prior to 1988) -- most reviewers generally enjoyed the new thriller, with some reservations. Several critics felt that the film escaped the confines of its genre to become something bigger and more profound. The Onion A.V. Club's Scott Tobias concluded, "Shutter Island may initially seem like a nerve-jangling genre piece in the Cape Fear mold, but it’s more like Scorsese’s The Shining, a horror show where it’s sometimes hard to tell the haunted from those doing the haunting." Similarly, Lawrence Toppman of the Charlotte Observer described the film as an exploration of "psychological or physical cruelty," much like earlier Scorsese films like Kundun, The Age of Innocence or Raging Bull. Reviewers also had praise for Scorsese's craftsmanship -- especially as manifested in the film's atmosphere and tension -- and almost universally lauded the cast and the music (though the San Francisco Chronicle panned the "ludicrously ominous" soundtrack).

Some critics, however, partially dismissed Shutter Island as a relatively minor work in Scorsese's career, either because of the genre or because of the result. The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips, in fact, opined that Scorsese overcompensated for the film's pulpy subject matter by "overcooking the stew," with the result being nothing more than "mazelike fun and games, without the fun." Many reviewers also faulted the film's intentional misdirection (there are red herrings aplenty, according to reviewers) as frustrating and found the story confusing, "overplotted" and "incomprehensible" (New York Observer's Rex Reed), or even "weird" (the Washington Post's Ann Hornaday).

And almost everyone noted the film's inconsistent pacing and unwieldy length (it clocks in at nearly two and a half hours): New York's David Edelstein was not the only critic to deem Shutter Island a "long slog." However, the film's strong payoff in the form of its final twist -- which works "shiveringly well," according to Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman, redeemed the journey in the eyes of some reviewers. As Rick Groen wrote in The Globe and Mail, "Not often in movies is the destination so much better than the journey."

The Ghost Writer 76

Roman Polanski's Last 5 Films
Oliver Twist (2005) 65
The Pianist (2002) 85
The Ninth Gate (1999) 44
Death and the Maiden (1994) 72
Bitter Moon (1992) xx

Director Roman Polanski put the finishing touches on The Ghost Writer (debuting this weekend in Los Angeles and New York and opening nationwide March 19th) while under house arrest in Switzerland. Based on Robert Harris' best-selling novel "The Ghost," the political thriller stars Ewan McGregor as a ghostwriter who uncovers dangerous secrets when he is hired to pen the autobiography of a Tony Blair-like British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan).

Polanski's 55-year career is filled with critically-acclaimed thrillers, and The Ghost Writer looks like it will join that list, even it it doesn't rank among his very best. When critics weren't busy discussing the director's ongoing legal problems, they found a lot to like, starting with the performances of McGregor and Brosnan, whose "verbal duels make for a dazzling game of cat-and-mouse," according to Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, who added that "even the smallest roles are expertly played." Many critics, like Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum, found the paranoia-laced film "well-made," and reviewers enjoyed the "verve and vitality" (Time Out New York) and glimpses of "that old Polanski magic" (Village Voice) that the director brought to what otherwise would be standard genre material. Several critics also called the film a "mature" or "adult" thriller, suggesting not sexual situations but a more cerebral, less action-driven example of the genre.

However, don't go into The Ghost Writer expecting "profundity" (Time Out New York) or even a coherent ending (Village Voice). The Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt similarly found the movie both "superficial" and shallow, "hypnotic" to sit through but unable to "bear close scrutiny" once its final images fade. And Variety's Derek Elley didn't share his colleagues' overall approval of the film; he found Polanski's adaptation of the novel too literal, McGregor's performance "weak," and the film itself lacking tension.

Next week in Metacritic

Opening wide next Friday, February 26th, are the Kevin Smith-directed buddy-cop comedy Cop Out and the horror remake The Crazies. Here are the trailers:

Full Movie Release Calendar

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Comments (5)

  • Chad S.  

    Mr. Doyle is right about Patricia Clarkson as a scene-stealer. In "Pieces of April", all she does is sit in the backseat, and your eyes are glued to her, a model of calm, as her harried family prepares to drive their cancer-stricken wife/mother. You're not watching Katie Holmes.

  • Chad S.  

    Given the company that "Shutter Island" finds itself it, I think it's absolutely ludicrous to advise moviegoers from staying away, when adult fare is in such short supply. I was listening to Colin Cowherd on ESPN radio yesterday ripping "Shutter Island" for not being "suspenseful". Knowing what we know about the main character, maybe it's not supposed to be suspenseful; maybe it's supposed to be about the form of suspense, since...well, I don't want to spoil anything. The score is so overbearing in some scenes, it practically deconstructs the action; it has a self-awareness of **** film. In this sense, "Shutter Island" plays like a thesis on Alfred **** similar to Francois Truffaut's "The Bride Wore Black".

  • Marc Doyle  

    So I saw both The Ghost Writer and Shutter Island this weekend, and I have to say the critics had them flipped this time. Most people won't discuss her, but Patricia Clarkson is simply incredible in a small role in Shutter Island - but probably the best in the movie. (She seems to steal scenes in just about every movie she's in....) I had read A.O. Scott's Shutter review in the NY Times and really expected to be disappointed by the film, but it absolutely delivered for me. Ghost Writer isn't bad, but it's a little meandering and leisurely in delivering the final punch.

  • anon  

    After seeing The Departed, I will never ever watch another Scorsese film again. Absolutely the worst film I have ever seen, and I doubt Shutter Island will be much better (though it certainly can't be worse). Also, wanna try casting somebody besides DiCaprio, Scorsese? Just a thought.

  • AC  

    I found the film to be very well acted, as exemplified by Jackie Earl Haley, but somewhat derivative. The first approximately 2/3rds of the film he acts and looks and has the badge of a real Deputy US Marshal. By the last 1/3 or so it switches to he may be crazy, then he is crazy, and finally he's one of the inmates, "the most dangerous one we have here," per Ben Kingsley. I've seen that before, not EXACTLY THAT before, but close enough for government work (no pun intended... or was it?). Also, why all the blood? The story should carry the idea, not squibs and special effects. My .02c

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