C r A i G e R ' S   

February 24 ,  2010


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

Directed by Martin Scorsese / Written by Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane

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.   

Or…does he? 

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 impulses. 

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.

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. 

The single concluding scene after the reveal (just before the film rolls to its end credits) is daringly brilliant, though (at this point the film masterfully tantalizes viewers once again with the notions of fantasy versus reality and whether or not a key figure is sane or not).  I admired the bleak ambiguousness of this wrap up, which leaves viewers off-balance (and definitely will provide for endless water cooler discussion), and, for the most part, cherished the manner that Scorsese pays homage to and commands the quintessence of the great thrillers of the past.  The film is nearly undone by its not-so-shocking twist, but Scorsese’s indelible presence behind the camera keeps SHUTTER ISLAND intriguingly afloat.

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