I love genre conventions. I really do. Two gunslingers stare each other down, waiting to see who will draw first. An honorable samurai duels his best friend, bound by honor to obey his wicked lord. The wise old mentor sacrifices himself to cover the hero’s escape. In the hands of a competent writer, tried and true tropes such as these can be useful tools, easing the reader into the narrative by capitalizing on established storytelling patterns.
Take, for example, Shutter Island. Scorsese knows his audience recognizes the well-worn thriller structure from frame one, and so dispenses with any pretense of misdirection. Instead, he focuses on crafting an eerie, immersive, hallucinatory cinematic roller coaster ride. We get every obligatory story beat, including the Agatha Christie-esque retroactive exposition dump… but what a journey! More importantly, Scorsese leaves us with more than the Tomato in the Mirror ending we’ve been anticipating since Teddy met Chuck on the boat; as far as twists go, “Which would be worse: to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?” is much more thought-provoking than, “No, Andrew, you are the missing patient.”
Unfortunately, Safe House uses genre conventions as a crutch, following the established action/thriller formula step-by-step, never once deviating or innovating—you couldn’t find a more predictable work of fiction on the Hallmark Channel. I knew Brendan Gleeson was the traitor from the moment he stepped into the preview, so the “shocking” scene in which he guns down Vera Farmiga rings hollow. Likewise, the entire climax feels disingenuous; is there ever any doubt Denzel will come back for Ryan Reynolds?
Shutter Island borrows a few time-tested plot devices, but gives something back to the genre, creating an experience that feels simultaneously fresh and familiar. Safe House just takes and takes and takes, producing a thriller that is conspicuously free of suspense, tension, and… well, thrills.
[Originally written February 13, 2012.]