REVIEW: Shutter Island [2010]

“Retreat isn’t something you consider an option”

Very rarely does a film meet, let alone exceed, the expectations of the piece of literature it is based upon. With a director like Martin Scorsese, however, you do hold out hope that it will at least come close. But with postponements from the Oscar wheelhouse of a fall release and the move to a dump month such as February, concern weighed very heavy. Maybe the departure in subject matter caused the venerable auteur to falter a bit, unsure of how to handle a thriller such as Dennis Lehane wrote. As it is, it’s a departure for the writer too—previously seeing very successful adaptations with Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone—delving into suspense/horror where dramatic intrigue used to be. I never read those two books, but I did catch up to this one, enjoying it immensely for its genre qualities and pulp nature. And that is exactly how I felt about the film version of Shutter Island; it’s not classic cinema, but a very strong, taut thriller and a perfect inclusion to Scorsese’s already prolific career.

This is definitely his most stylish work to date—almost overly so. Scorsese has always had a style of his own, but this one seems to be taking some pages from other directors. Perhaps he just wanted to branch out and try something new, keeping Kubrick’s The Shining at the forefront of his mind, utilizing a lot of that film’s tricks to wet his feet in the endeavor. I had heard previous to the screening that comparisons to the classic 1980 film were running rampant and it didn’t take long to see for myself. So much of the beginning is shot from a low angle, looking forward into expository frames. There are a lot of static shots centered, very symmetrically, lulling us into this world of quiet to soon erupt with insanity. Sharp cuts to overhead images, meticulously positioned made me think of the blink and you’ll miss them edits in The Shining, mixed together with quick connectors of close-up banal action, like the locking of a door, bringing to mind Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. And even the music cues recall Kubrick’s horror film—at times abrasively loud, crescendoing to its peak and then disappearing to complete silence, only the natural sounds of what’s onscreen remaining. If this film gets any Oscar love, Sound Editing is top of the list.

The lynchpin that holds it all together, though, comes in the form of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels. By far the lead role here, in front of the camera for the duration, DiCaprio gives a tour de force performance, embodying this haunted WWII vet turned US Marshall, desperately trying to expose a system he sees as corrupt, maybe getting revenge for his wife’s murder in the process. It is a solid portrayal that only gets better as the film goes on, watching this hardnosed and stubborn man slowly unravel at the seams. So many secrets become revealed as the plot progresses, and while their outcomes are somewhat obvious, (I’ll admit to figuring the whole thing out while watching the original trailer last year, before I even read the novel), but I do believe experiencing the revelations firsthand is worthwhile, so I won’t go into more detail. Being such a twist-oriented story could have hurt the film for someone who knew the plot going in, but Scorsese should not be underestimated. The sense of excitement mixed with dread is still palpable because knowing what will happen gave way to not knowing how he’d show it. And if Marty got one thing right here it is the amazing 1950s aesthetic and the visual flair of the events.

To give a little about the plot of the tale, DiCaprio’s Teddy and his new partner Chuck, (played effectively by Mark Ruffalo if only because he doesn’t standout or steal the spotlight), have arrived at Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of one Rachel Solando, a woman who killed her three children years before that has seemed to vanish through the walls. The island is a mental institution for the criminally insane, but something is a bit off-kilter and there is more going on than is being told to the Marshalls. Guns must be removed, personnel files are off-limits, and it’s almost as though the psychiatrists don’t want the woman to be found. While the case moves forward, however, we also become more involved in the psyche of Teddy himself, catching glimpses of his past and nightmares of his dead wife talking to him about her killer being on the island too. Adding to the feelings of dread made real by the acting and stunning visuals is a crippling sense of claustrophobia. Scorsese has trapped us on the island with the two Officers, always showing the gate close behind them, even using torrential rain as a blockade to freedom outside the grounds. And the use of objects ever apparent between the actors and the audience is ever-present. Sometimes it will be a fence, sometimes a literal cage, and at one instance, beautifully, the crackling flames of a fire licking at the faces of DiCaprio and Patricia Clarkson, keeping them far away from us, even in close-up.

Supporting roles like Clarkson help flesh out the film; using well-known faces for bit parts, proving the pull that Scorsese has in collecting superb talent. Elias Koteas, Jackie Earle Haley, Emily Mortimer, and Michelle Williams all come into the fray and shine in their limited, yet integral screen time. Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow round out the cast as the doctors helping the Marshalls secure their island sanctuary, a hospital trying to do some good for people the world has forsaken, but again, they are all just players in the game surrounding Teddy Daniels. The subject of insanity looms large, as well as the pros and cons of medicinal treatments versus lobotomies, but the real topic at hand is what is happening to DiCaprio’s character and the blurring of reality with fantasy. By no means a masterpiece, Shutter Island succeeds within its genre, excelling at providing psychological scares and invigorating revelations. It’s good to see Scorsese have some fun, as well as a popular novel be converted so faithfully, save for the final event. It may be the one change I can clearly point out, but it is also an improvement on the source, in my opinion, leaving the audience with a sense of ambiguity that puts an even darker spin to Lehane’s original conclusion.

Shutter Island 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a detective sent from the mainland to investigate a mysterious disappearance on an island prison for the criminally insane in the thriller “Shutter Island.”
[2] Ben Kingsley (center) stars as Dr. Cawley in the thriller “Shutter Island.”


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