C r A i G e R ' S
February 24 , 2010
2010, R, 138 mins.
2010, R, 138 mins.
Teddy Daniels: Leonardo DiCaprio / Chuck Aule: Mark Ruffalo / Dr.
Cawley: Ben Kingsley / Dr. Naehring: Max von Sydow / Dolores: Michelle
Williams / Rachel 1: Emily Mortimer / Rachel 2: Patricia
Clarkson / George: Jackie Earle Haley / Warden: Ted Levine
There are very few film auteurs that can successfully dive head first into decidedly big budget, commercial genre efforts while still maintaining a decent semblance of their aesthetic proclivities.
Martin Scorsese is one of
those filmmakers; if you look as far back as 1991 with his remake of CAPE
FEAR you could sense a willingness on his part to direct an thriller with mass-market appeal that did not completely subvert
his skills as an artist. Watching
his newest effort, the frequently nightmarish and consummately stylish
period thriller, SHUTTER ISLAND, I once again see Scorsese trying to
appease lay filmgoers as well as his die-hard fundamentalists.
The film – much like CAPE FEAR – may not belong among the
pantheon of his masterpieces – but there is no denying the hypnotically
engaging pull of it, which constantly invests the audiences by steadily
and methodically, teasing them with its many twists and turns.
Watching a Scorsese film is
like taking a relative two hour-plus film course: In all of his efforts,
you can see not only his ardent passion for the cinema, but also his encyclopedic
knowledge and appreciation for the film antecedents that inspire him.
SHUTTER ISLAND is an exceptionally effective homogenization of so
many diverse influences, as it liberally borrows from everything from
shadowy film noir, the hard-boiled detective mystery, the conventional
horror fright fest, and lastly the psychological thriller.
What stands out in the film is how intuitively it places emphasis
on its environment as a source of mood: Like what Stanley Kubrick has done
in many of his films, the setting in SHUTTER ISLAND is a rich character that
both directly and indirectly correlates with the fractured and disturbed
mindsets of the characters trapped within it.
SHUTTER ISLAND also reminded me constantly of Hitchcock’s
VERTIGO, which Scorsese, by his own admission, stated as his most overt
influence on his film. Both
thrillers are about damaged and traumatized fringe characters that, from
the very beginning, have burdens to bare throughout the rest of the film
and, as a result, walk a desolate tightrope of inner obsession and denial.
Right from the film’s
opening shots, Scorsese brings a sense of startling and unsettling
immediacy to the proceedings. It’s 1954 - a polarizing period following the end of
WWII (which nonetheless still serves as an eerie influence over one
character) that gave rise to the Cold War and McCarthyism - and we are
introduced to a mental institution named Shutter Island, which houses an old,
ominous, and thoroughly creepy series of buildings off the coast of Massachusetts.
The island notoriously hosts Ashecliffe Hospital, an asylum for the
“criminally insane,” as one character cryptically refers to it at one
point. Much like Alcatraz,
Shutter Island is essentially escape proof: swimming out to sea would lead
to certain death, and any attempt to climb down the island’s treacherously
rocky cliffs would prove equally fatal.
Once you’re on the island, you’re there to stay unless you are
let go on your own free will and given access to suitable transport.
On one stormy autumn day two
Federal marshals, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner,
Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) arrive on the island on a mission: they
are to investigate the shocking disappearance of a prisoner, Rachel
Solando (Emily Mortimer), that has vanished under the most mysterious
circumstances (very mysterious, indeed, seeing as there is essentially no
place to hide on the island). When Teddy and Chuck confront one of the institution’s
chief psychiatrists and administrators, Dr, John Cawley (Ben Kingsley), he
seems to be a cordial and inviting figure, but the more time they spend
with him the less and less he is willing to give the pair free reign on
the island so they can properly perform their duties.
Their firearms are confiscated, they are restricted from going to
certain locations, and they are even constrained from speaking to certain
inmates and workers. As Teddy
– and the audience – begins to discover, something is not right.
Teddy becomes even more
paranoid when he meets another of the island's head doctors, an enigmatic
German named Naehring (Max von Sydow), who goes out of his way to suppress
Teddy’s investigation even further.
The situation is exacerbated by Teddy’s immediate mistrust of
this man, which primarily has a lot to do with his feelings about the
Germans in general (we learn in flashbacks that he helped to
liberate a Nazi death camp). Things
begin to snowball from there: A massive hurricane strikes, which means that
the marshals have no way of leaving the island.
Worse yet, Teddy becomes tormented by the memories of
his deceased wife (Michelle Williams) that died under very dubious circumstances. As the
film’s jigsaw-like plot begins to slowly unravel, Teddy begins to put
the fractured pieces and clues together and sees a darker and
more nefarious conspiracy perpetrated by the doctors that has echoes of
Nazi human experimentation.
SHUTTER ISLAND has been
adapted by the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name, an author that you may recall
penning two other books that were also made into films, MYSTIC RIVER and
the lamentably undervalued GONE BABY GONE.
Those films, much like SHUTTER ISLAND, have characters
traumatized by life-long wounds and feel driven by their own fanatical
drive for the truth. The
crutch of Scorsese's film is the character of Teddy himself and the erosion and
slow burn of not only his confidence and personal identity, but also on
his perceptions of reality. That’s
where SHUTTER ISLAND is at its most confident and assured: Like all
intoxicating character-centric thrillers, you are constantly involved and
fascinated by the mindset of the main protagonist. The film takes great
pleasure in keeping viewers off-kilter by never truly allowing them to feel
safe and secure with the underlining story.
Is Teddy really uncovering a massive and systemic plot committed by
Cawley and Naehring to use their defenseless patients as guinea pigs
or…um…is Teddy gradually going crazy?
Aside from the film’s
exemplary handling of its characters, SHUTTER ISLAND is a tour de force of
gothic and frightening atmosphere. The
way Scorsese realizes this twisted and freakish asylum works hand-in-hand
with relaying the corrosion of Teddy’s delicate mindset.
The dark and decrepit corridors of the asylum’s most insidious
wings, the forcefully surreal memories of Teddy’s wife and his
experiences with the horror of Nazi concentration camps, and even the
daunting weather outside all serve to distinguish the film and give it a
palpable sense of doom and gloom. I especially loved the film’s fantastically shrill and
percussive music score that evokes the greatest chords of Bernard Hermann
(Hitchcock’s finest collaborator).
Interestingly, this is not an original score but rather an ensemble
of previously recorded material collected by one of Scorsese’s
collaborators, Robbie Robertson. The
compilation of classical music here gives the film a splintered sonic mosaic
that perfectly coalesces with the rest of the film’s devious and dark
The performances themselves
are also resoundingly stellar. This
is DiCaprio’s fourth collaboration with Scorsese (after GANGS
OF NEW YORK, THE AVIATOR, and THE
DEPARTED) and he gives arguably his most impressive, complex and
tricky performances to date suggesting Teddy’s intrepid determination
alongside his tortured psyche, the latter element which appears to be
getting the better of him and at the most inopportune times.
The rest of the cast is spot on as well, like Ben Kingsley, who can
effortless come off as instantly duplicitous with the most modest of
gestures and words; Max von Sydow, who creates an instantly sinister
figure of mistrust; Mark Ruffalo, who must be the voice of reason during
an investigation that has no reason; and Patricia Clarkson, Emily
Mortimer, Jackie Earl Haley, and Elias Koteas are all memorably
compelling and fantastic as various denizens of the island.
Mortimer in particular - especially during a brief, but undeniably
powerful, standoff with DiCaprio - gives her most textured and provocative
performance of her career here.
She displays a fearless range I have not seen in her before.
She displays a fearless range I have not seen in her before.
Scorsese, no doubt, crafts an
undeniably strong genre effort here that is visually and thematically
reminiscent of the classic Hollywood thrillers of yesteryear (yes, this is
a large scale, mass marketed effort, but his esoteric fingerprints are all
over it). Yet, SHUTTER ISLAND has one large and glaring failing, which
is all the more frustrating seeing that Scorsese is so universally adept
and deliberately disciplined. There
is a proverbial plot twist that, upon close scrutiny very early on, can be
seen with relative ease, which all but erodes the type of shock value it
should have garnered when unveiled near the end of the film. Yes, SHUTTER ISLAND is mind and reality bending, stylish, and
seductively keeps viewers on the edge of their seats with its moral
uncertainty, but the film’s big secret (which apparently Lehane kept
guarded until near the end of the book) is far too easily tipped off and telegraphed
in the film. Because the
reveal is not as scandalous and shocking as it should have been, SHUTTER
ISLAND seriously loses psychological impact as it draws to a close.