Monday, February 22, 2010

Movie Review: Shutter Island

Shutter Island ****
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Laeta Kalogridis based on the novel by Dennis Lehane.
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio (Teddy Daniels), Mark Ruffalo (Chuck Aule), Ben Kingsley (Dr. Cawley), Max von Sydow (Dr. Naehring), Michelle Williams (Dolores), Emily Mortimer (Rachel 1), Patricia Clarkson (Rachel 2), Jackie Earle Haley (George Noyce), Ted Levine (Warden), John Carroll Lynch (Deputy Warden McPherson), Elias Koteas (Laeddis).

Shutter Island maybe one of those rare movies that work better when you already know the surprises and twists of the story. Having read the book before seeing the movie, I knew what the twists of the plots were, so I was able to sit back and just let the movie wash over me. It is a grand, madhouse caper from Martin Scorsese, who love of Alfred Hitchcock and film noir are evident in every frame of this movie. As with the great movies by Hitchcock, you watch the movie once to get the story, and then watch it again to see what the master does, how he plays with the audience’s unease, and unsettles and disturbs us. The plot of the movie – the twists, the turns – is not really the point of the movie at all.

The movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels, a US Marshall in 1954 who is sent to mental institution on Shutter Island, off the coast of Maine, with his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the disappearance of an inmate named Rachel (Emily Mortimer). No one can figure out what happened to her, as there is no way she should have been able to escape her room, and even if she did, she still had to get by many orderlies on her way out. She has to still be on the island – there is nothing there except for the mental institution, and the only way off is a ferry. This mental institution is for the criminally insane – everyone there is a murderer of some kind or another. Rachel herself drowned her three kids, and refuses to accept reality. She still believes that she is at home, and everyone around her are delivery men and neighbors.

For the moment that they arrive on Shutter Island, there is something not quite right about what is going on. Everyone regards Daniels in a strange way – a mixture of kindness, contempt and pity is in pretty much everyone’s eyes. As he and Chuck start investigating, they keep getting stonewalled by the kindly Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), who is different from his peers in that he rejects the old way of doing things – which was essentially torture, followed by a lobotomy if that didn’t work – and the new way of giving the patients drugs. He prefers to talk to his patients, and treat them that way. Give them a sense of calm. Daniels is less sympathetic – screw their sense of calm he tells Cawley.

As with many of the movies of the era that Scorsese is referencing here, the war hangs over the entire film. It haunts Daniels memory, as we get flashbacks to his time in the war when he was among the people who liberated Dachau. And it haunts his memories of his wife (Michelle Williams), who died in a house fire. When he gets to Shutter Island, he starts to suspect the same sort of experiments are going on here, as what he fought against in the war.

Shutter Island may seem like a departure for Scorsese. He has rarely worked in the horror/thriller genre before. His previous effort, Cape Fear, while somewhat underrated, is still one of Scorsese’s lesser efforts. In that film, Scorsese had trouble melding his favorite themes of guilt and redemption to the thriller narrative. But no such problems exist in this movie. While the film has all the genre trappings of the a thriller – and Scorsese revels in them – at its heart it really is a film that touches on his favorite themes. Daniels is a man who is collapsing under the weight of the guilt he feels about his past. When he is asked if he believes in God, all he can do is smirk. Seeing what he has seen, how can he still believe in God?

I want to go into more detail about how Daniels – and DiCaprio’s remarkable performance in the role – really does fall in line with other Scorsese heroes, but I think in doing so, I would be giving too much of the plot away, and I do not want to do that. What I will say is that Shutter Island is one of the best made films of the year – and will likely remain so for all of 2010. Scorsese’s restless camera probes the grounds of Shutter Island, and corridors of the hospital. He gives the entire movie an mounting sense of doom and dread. Violence is just around the corner at every step of the movie. Scorsese does an excellent job at showing, not telling, us what is going on. He gives us visual clues throughout the movie as to what is going on, often with only the slightest movement telling us more than we think possible. He does an excellent job of getting great performances out of his cast – not just DiCaprio, who slowly unravels brilliantly – but the entire cast around him. Shutter Island has already been compared to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. And while I do not think that this film is that good – or even among the very best films of Scorsese’s career – it is still a great film. To a certain extent, Shutter Island is Scorsese playing around in one of his favorite genres. But he has found a story that still addresses his obsessions. I would rather see Scorsese play around, than I would most directors play something completely seriously.

No comments:

Post a Comment