Retro movie review: “Cutthroat Island”

OK so time for a retro movie review! Today, at Sean Gorman’s request, I’m reviewing “Cutthroat Island”, the 1995 flop which broke loss records ($82 million dollars blown) and nearly sunk director Renny Harlin’s career (he was saved, the next year, by “The Long Kiss Goodnight”). Gorman is a big, and unironic, fan of “Cutthroat Island”, and so I was flattered to be asked to weigh in—anyone can opine on a masterpiece, but it takes real courage to show your friends a bad movie that you unironically adore. I adore a lot of bad movies—in fact, I probably re-watch bad movies more than I re-watch good ones, trying to get at the ineffable core of what makes them appeal to me, peeling back the layers of my own Id. (This is kind of like trying to see the back of your own head in a mirror.) Why do I like “The Cutting Edge” more than I like “The Godfather”? Why did I care about “Beethoven” (yes, the movie about a St. Bernard) enough to memorize the script as a child, and turn my nose up at “The Secret Garden”? What *is* it about “Live Free Or Die Hard”? When you ask yourself those kinds of questions, the answers that eventually bubble up tend to be pretty deeply personal, less the stuff of film theory then of therapy. Maybe the flirtation between Jack Black and Cameron Diaz, as they wander the aisles of a Blockbuster Video in “The Holiday”, reminds you of your first date with The One Who Got Away; maybe the fantastical paradise of “Hook” offers the safety that eluded you when you were a kid. “The Holiday” and “Hook” are objectively mediocre movies, but objectivity is worth about as much as a bucket of warm piss when we talk about art, and the ways it speaks to the dark and hidden parts of ourselves which we can’t quite reach. All of which is to say: I can look at “Cutthroat Island” and call it a bad movie—which it is—but that gets us no closer to understanding whether you’d like “Cutthroat Island”, if it would address a vitamin deficiency somewhere in your soul. Here’s why it might:

First off, Geena Davis. Anyone who could look at her and remain unmoved is not a person I want in my life. Geena Davis, as a star, has the same problem Angelina Jolie has—her magnetism is so extreme, her va-va so conclusively voom, that it short-circuits your brain. Neither she nor Jolie could play a secondary character if their lives depended on it—simply by being in frame, they hijack the entire movie. This poses a problem for “Cutthroat Island”, because every other character who enters the frame with Geena Davis suddenly becomes The One We Are Not Looking At. “Cutthroat Island” solves this problem in two creative and admirable ways: first, by casting Matthew Modine opposite Davis as hapless thief William Shaw. Modine has the converse of Davis’s problem—no matter how many times you see him (and he works constantly), something about him eludes memory, leaving behind only a faint aftertaste of bland, blonde handsomeness.

The second, and more interesting, way that “Cutthroat Island” addresses Geena Davis’s stupefying beauty, is by writing a role for her that is functionally identical to a role written for Tom Cruise or Will Smith or Harrison Ford or any other leading man of extraordinary and stupefying beauty—in other words, the movie almost completely ignores it, allowing her to get on with the business of heroism unimpeded by long and lingering glamour shots, prolonged “getting ready” montages or shower scenes, sex or even nudity beyond the flash of a thigh as she unholsters a gun. In academic terms, this movie is not framed through the lens of the “male gaze”; in English, that means that this movie doesn’t leer. Davis gets to run through plate-glass windows, drive teams of horses, captain a ship, and buckle large amounts of swash without any editorial commentary or sense that this is unusual—her skills are accepted matter-of-factly by those around her as the ordinary and appropriate skills accruing to a pirate, and the movie indulges in exactly zero handwringing about any of it. All of which is really refreshing! I would, without hesitation, show this movie to any bright and promising nine-year-old, secure in the knowledge that I was imparting only good things.

Well. *Mostly* good things. As charming and light-hearted as Geena Davis’s performance is, it is tethered to plot made out of pig-iron, in which she must find and translate three parts of a treasure map, escape the law, fight off a murderous uncle, pilot a ship through a gale, fight off a murderous uncle again, find a hidden island, yet again deal with a murderous uncle, jump off a cliff… you get the idea. It’s a long string of mostly-pedestrian action sequences which exist only to place additional, artificial barriers between the heroine and her reward/McGuffin, a literal pile of gold. “But this is a pirate movie,” I can hear you saying. “Isn’t this the one kind of movie where a literal pile of gold is reason enough to keep the plot moving forward?” That argument sounds reasonable, but here’s the thing about McGuffin chases: a McGuffin is just the excuse to put a plot in motion and begin a story about people and the bonds between them. The plans to the Death Star aren’t something we care about—we care about Leia, and want to see her escape her prison cell and kiss her brother. The Ark of the Covenant is an excuse for Indiana Jones to check up on spitfire Marian Ravenwood, whose love he does not deserve. The Infinity Stones are a matched set of McGuffins, but we know that their pursuit made the Guardians of the Galaxy into a family and enabled Thanos to break our fuckin’ hearts. Used correctly, a McGuffin is a pacemaker, powering the warm beating heart of some of our favorite movies. Used incorrectly, it remains a literal pile of gold: cold and emotionally inert. “Cutthroat Island” tries to build a romance around the pursuit of treasure, but settles for two hours of elaborate stunts and increasingly meaningless explosions on a wildly expensive soundstage. It’s just like they say. Money talks.

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