Monday, February 22, 2010

Shutter Island (2010)

Martin Scorsese is on a roll. Since 2002 he’s been nominated for the Best Director Oscar three times – for Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004), and The Departed (2006), for which he won – produced one of the greatest rock docs of all time with No Direction Home (2005), and re-established himself as one of the premiere directors of our time. Through most of it he’s been accompanied by Leonardo DiCaprio, a talented young actor who, like Robert De Niro before him, has reached new heights as Scorsese’s muse. So it’s only fitting that the duo close out the decade with something as consuming and masterful as Shutter Island.

Following almost a year of trailers after months of delay, Shutter Island is a welcome and dominating force in cinema’s darkest creative months. Set in a post-war America haunted by the harsh realities of shattering dreams, it stars DiCaprio as a U.S. Marshal investigating the unsettling mystery of a sea-locked mental facility. Built as an Alcatraz for crazies off the coast of Boston Bay, Shutter Island is a heavily guarded, heavily haunted catch-all for the criminally insane…and DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels is the latest caught in its trap.
Under the guise of the investigation of a missing patient, Teddy and his partner Chuck (the always reliable Mark Ruffalo) dig in to the island, uncovering mystery after mystery in their effort to understand what makes it tick. But the further Teddy’s pulled in, the deeper his investigation goes, the darker the island becomes.

It all plays out like LOST as a haunted house, with Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow as the island know-alls, pulling the strings as the surface investigation (i.e. the plot) gives way to the true exploration – the inquisition of the soul.

But it’s Scorsese who’s really in charge, and he makes sure we know it from the opening moments. Shutter Island is as much a movie as an art gallery, a historical allusion to the works of the past manifested as an audience assault. Marty is the ultimate nerd, a grade A student of his craft capable of pulling from his influences with such class and respect that you can’t call it stealing. If Tarantino is the class outlaw, Scorsese is the valedictorian.

As a student NYU, Scorsese made what may be the most famous undergrad film in history, in which a man cuts himself shaving, repeatedly, till there is no more blood to give. It’s horrific and threatening, and under the surface an allegory for Vietnam. Some 40 years later, Shutter Island is the closest he’s come in tone and style to that film. Though this is his first foray into horror, it feels like the familiar work of a master, like Hitchcock or Stephen King at the top of their game.

And everyone involved rises to the challenge. The story, pulled from a Dennis Lehane novel by Laeta Kalogridis (Alexander, 2004), provides an excellent source material, pulling us through its many twists and dark turns with the utmost confidence. This is heavy material – heavier than you might think, and certainly more than the traditional Hollywood fare.

Then, of course, there’s DiCaprio, steadfast and committed. Kingsley and Ruffalo are both great, as are Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer and Jackie Earle Haley in their brief but impactful roles. But it’s DiCaprio who plunges into the depths, whole heartedly and with faith that Marty will guide him through. Why not? They’ve done it before. They’ll do it again. What we’re witnessing here is one of the great collaborations in our cinematic history. It’s something to be appreciated.

And we can start by watching Shutter Island a second time through. It’s one of those films that rewards multiple viewings with layers of dedicated storytelling, where 10 things are playing out at 10 angles in any given scene, it’s characters themselves at times only aware of a few of them. It’s heady stuff, but never at the cost of being entertaining. Scorsese’s film rewards you, weather in your request for thrills and chills, or in your understanding of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). It operates on multiple levels, but never forgets its mission to be, like the films it emulates, a no-nonsense genre movie – enjoyed, and at its best, inspired.


Andrew said...

I would agree almost completely with your analysis. The film was incredibly well done, and well acted. The twists and turns, despite a level of predictability, maintained so many layers, that there was still enough shock value at the end to enthrall me. However, two things drew me out of the film on several occasions. One was the effects. Actually knowing several people who did the effects on this film, and having seen many shots, I know there is A LOT you don't even notice, and I won't give those away. However, there were several shots that I saw that were clearly fake, and really drew me out. The other problem I had was with the music, which twanged and shrieked to add some tension, but ended up drawing me out of the otherwise encompassing film. Other than that, completely agreed. Great movie.

DubMC said...

Thanks, Andrew. I'm curious - which were the shots that drew you out? There were a couple that came to mind for me, but I wasn't sure.


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