Last year everyone was penciling in Shutter Island as one of the contenders for the expanded Best Picture slot. A safe bet, sight unseen, even as far back as May. It was pretty much a blank slate at that point with only Up and even Star Trek being considered amongst the already released. A funny thing happened though on the way towards October 2. Paramount yanked the film from its release schedule and pushed it into February of 2010. ""Our 2009 slate was greenlit in a very different economic climate and as a result we must remain flexible and willing to recalibrate and adapt to a changing environment." said Paramount chairman, Brad Grey.
Translation? Take your pick. The cynic sees a fancy statement that utilize the excuse flavor of the past year. Economy, economy, economy! Poor Paramount made the announcement after a year where they saw a share of the profits on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen ($397 million+ at the time), Star Trek ($256 million+), Monsters vs. Aliens ($198 million+) and G.I. Joe ($108 million+), not to mention early year hits Hotel For Dogs ($73 million+) and I Love You, Man ($71 million+).
I can't pretend to know all the intricacies of Hollywood bookkeeping and precisely what share the studio had in their collaboration with Dreamworks. Nor could anyone have predicted that a couple months later, an investment in Paranormal Activity would wield another $107 million. What we do know is the speculation that the studio didn't have the money for an extended Oscar push from October into December. Did they want to do it proper or were they writing it off as having no shot? Remember this announcement came in August. No one was committed to The Hurt Locker having such a strong presence through awards season. Avatar was still a mystery. Inglourious Basterds had just opened that very day. Could it be my colleague, Nick Digilio at WGN Radio Chicago, was right when he leaned over to me during the screening of Shutter Island and suggested the studio blinked over realizing they had a Nazi subplot on hand six weeks after the release of Tarantino's film? Not to mention a similarly felt theme running throughout District 9?
As good a theory as any I suppose. As for Paramount's award plans last year, they still had Up In The Air and The Lovely Bones to consider. One was yet to be launched at Telluride and Toronto and the other had already been shifted out of the previous year's award race into a spring release in '09 and ultimately into limited release in December. With Jackson's film taken out of the running upon the first mixed reactions and others like Jackson's Bones, Clint Eastwood's Invictus and Rob Marshall's Nine not drawing the necessary passion to keep it afloat, is there any reason to suggest that Shutter Islandwould not currently be a nominee for Best Picture?
The film is probably good for $60 million in the bank no matter what time of the year you release it. That is more than four of the current nominees and wouldn't have been too far behind Up In The Air's receipts. The Blind Side and A Serious Manreceived only a single nomination outside of their Best Picture slot. Five films got more nominations (Crazy Heart, Nine, The Princess and the Frog, Star Trek, The Young Victoria), and another seven received as many, but were shut out of Best Picture. The Blind Side had the mega box office though and A Serious Man had the pedigree of the Coen Bros. Would Shutter Island have been forgotten with a reasonable mixture of both?
Reviews at the moment are more uneven than expected. (Along with Fish Tank, I feel Shutter Island is unquestionably one of the finest films released in this young year.) But not radically so. It is currently on par with The Blind Side at Rotten Tomatoes. And that is one of the saddest statements I have ever written. While the reviews would have been the same in October (unless some critic had a bad day), hindsight is still 20/20 and we now have to measure Shutter Island against the already announced nominees. Would Morgan Freeman have been replaced by a more complex and memorable performance by DiCaprio? Could any of the variety of terrific supporting performances been given a modicum of serious consideration? Ben Kingsley would have been a longshot, but in the ever shifting crapshoot of Supporting Actress that allowed Maggie Gyllenhaal to sneak in, it is not out of mind to think that Michelle Williams or Patricia Clarkson would have been in the conversation. Laeta Kalogridis' screenplay might have knocked out District 9 or In The Loop. They might have had to change the title to Shutter Island: Based On The Novel Shutter Island By Dennis Lehane, but the complexities of a period story involving the Holocaust and the changing face of psychiatry against the backdrop of McCarthyism trumps anything in Precious.
That's the heart talking more than the head that acknowledges the Precious train was already starting to roll, but consider the myriad of other nominations Shutter Island might have received. Art Direction, Editing, perhaps even a Sound or Makeup nod. Robert Richardson had won the Cinematography Oscar for Scorsese'sThe Aviator in 2004 and he was nominated for Basterds. Just two years ago Roger Deakins was a double nominee for No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James. Of course that was the first time that happened since Robert Surtees was doubled up in 1971. And then there is Scorsese himself. Seven nominations for Best Director to his credit, including three in a row for his last triplicate of narratives. I think even Lee Daniels would have to concede that Shutter Island was a greater undertaking than his close-up approach to Precious.
We must look onward to 2010 though. The name of Scorsese alone will have Shutter Island on the early lists no matter how it does at the box office or gets written off by sleepy critics. We can only look forward to what is officially on the schedule to knock this out of the discussion. The Coens' remake of True Grit, Clint Eastwood collaborating with Peter Morgan onHereafter, a new James L. Brooks, Disney's Rapunzel redux (Tangled) and Pixar's Toy Story 3, David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network and Christopher Nolan's Inception (also with DiCaprio). And those are just the big boys. Who knows what will sneak into the schedule by mid-year. Will Winter's Bone be this year's Sundance entry? Are we going to hear the same excuse from Paramount when they begin throwing their money into the campaign for True Grit or David O. Russell's The Fighter? Only four films in the last 20 years have been released in the first quarter and been nominated for Best Picture. Erin Brockovich, Fargo and Four Weddings and a Funeral were all released in March. Only one was released as early as Shutter Island and that was The Silence of the Lambs on Feb. 14, 1991. Hopefully psychiatrists and Ted Levine will be as great a Valentine for Shutter Island as well. Otherwise someone might want to reserve a ward for Paramount execs for leaving such a great film in a state of limbo.