It’s always difficult for me to write anything about films which have already received immense praise from countless better writers than I, so I’ll be brief: this film is practically perfect. I love it to death. One significant thing about it is that, while it is clearly a Hollywood entertainment film, it unusually has no clear place in the genre system. It’s kind of a detective drama, kind of a psychological drama/thriller, kind of a horror film, and kind of a comedy. Maybe it’s all of them, and if it is, that’s a tough balance to achieve. While this may not be my favorite Jodie Foster performance, Hopkins makes up for this in spades, and his character clearly shaped many later works of media which I love. It’s not quite in my top 20 favorite films – maybe it’s just not a very “J. D. Hansel” kind of movie – but I approve of its status as one of the best films of all time without any reservations.
READ THIS REVIEW BEFORE SEEING THE FILM
For what it’s worth, I really tried to watch this movie the right way. I had been warned that the film has an opening voiceover (added by the studio due to concerns that humans are stupid) which gives away many of the biggest surprises, reveals, and twists. So, I did my filmic duty and muted everything up until the opening titles, which is what everyone who sees it ought to do. Unfortunately, I forgot that I had the closed captions turned on, so I still had something important spoiled for me, but it wasn’t much more than had already been spoiled by the guy who had informed me about the voiceover in the first place. I think the best way to avoid this issue is to just watch the director’s cut, which does not spoil itself at the start and remains more true to what the film was meant to be. I eagerly look forward to watching the director’s cut for myself, if only because, in spite of its problems, I actually greatly enjoy this movie – so much so that I started watching it again from the beginning almost immediately after it ended. No matter how many times the movie explains itself (and it is a lot), it manages to stay surprising and interesting, holding my attention from start to finish.
One of the things that makes it so captivating is the editing, which is incredibly fast. When I started watching the movie from the beginning for a second time, it felt normal to me, but during my initial viewing, it threw me off with its rather awkward speed and tight transitions, throwing out so much of the space to catch one’s breath between cuts/scenes that other films offer. It’s obviously visually outstanding – that’s arguably the point of the film – but I think there’s more to it than that. Yes, it’s about getting lost in another world and exploring a strange, anxiety-inducing place, but it also makes an argument for how the human mind/soul works, and it makes it well. Its story may be nothing remarkable, but that doesn’t matter – It’s still one of the most thrilling films I’ve ever seen. If not for the film’s inability to keep its mouth shut and let me figure it out for myself, and if not for the film’s disinterest in making me feel emotion, I would be hailing it as practically perfect and as one of the all-time greatest movies ever made.
MINOR SPOILER ALERT
I went into this movie with no idea what it was about – I had never heard of it, and I was only watching because my flatmates put it on our big TV. As I watched it, I was surprised to see the big stars it featured, but I was more surprised by the caliber of the filmmaking. I had no idea who directed the film, but it really seemed like whoever it was had a good sense of how to carefully craft a film like this carefully – with any other director, it could have been a bad film. The filmmakers clearly understood the traditions that this film followed – the old film noir detective stories are here combined with the horror stories of the haunted island or eerie asylum – and the film’s historical/contextual self-consciousness makes it a lot more likable for a movie buff. The amount of care that was put into the details, the cleverness of the visual aspects of the storytelling, the use of creative visual effects and vivid colors at just the right moments, the well-paced reveals of new information and distractions from important information, and the overall sense of fear the film instills all come together to make a movie that is both exciting and fascinating. I was eager to see who this director was who clearly had such a great understanding of how to make something great out of a screenplay that’s just okay, and the name that appeared in the credits was no young, unknown newcomer as I had expected, but was surprisingly none other than Martin Scorsese.
It may seem surprising that I haven’t seen much of Scorsese’s work, and it even surprises me seeing as how I love watching/hearing interviews with him, but after The Age of Innocence left me unsatisfied, I didn’t realize just how thrilling a film he could make. This movie does have its problems, however, so I can understand why its reviews haven’t all been ideal. While Scorsese is very clever in the way he artistically uses visuals to establish elements that are important to the twist ending, all without making the twist too obvious, I did figure it out (or at least started theorizing it) about halfway through (which I can’t say was the case for my flatmates, but familiarity with really old horror movies helps). The screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis is clever overall, and it makes for a fun movie, but there do seem to be some loose ends that don’t make much sense after close inspection or thoughtful reflection. (Without giving too much away, there is a scene in which Ben Kingsley’s character tells the protagonist that he had no partner in his investigation, and this doesn’t really fit into the twist ending, or any speculative ending the viewer might be considering.) The film does give a general impression of being a generic drama with generic twists and not much to offer in the way of deep thought or compelling drama – compare the tone to The Colony/Colonia – so I can see why it’s not considered Scorsese’s best. It is, however, a piece of cinema that works very well for what it’s trying to accomplish, and its accessibility gives me confidence that I can highly recommend it to anyone in the mood for a fun movie night.