Shutter Island

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The new horror film, “Shutter Island,” based on the popular novel by Dennis Lehane, represents a mid-range and mid-achievement for Scorsese in his post-Oscar phase every way. The film is dense in imagery but not rich enough in ideas, almost consistently entertaining but not entirely gripping, stylistically overwrought without being truly poignant.

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World-premiering at the 2010 Berlin Film Fest, “Shutter Island,” which will be released by Paramount in the U.S. on February 19, may divide critics, but should do reasonably well at the box-office (The film, touted to be Oscar contender, was pushed back from its original late fall date).

Unlike Brian De Palma and David Fincher, the horror genre has never been a natural fit for Scorsese, who indeed has made few films that could be classified that way, the last of which was the 1991 remake, “Cape Fear,” which also was overwrought, excessive, and lacking in other significant ways.
Structurally and thematically uneven, “Shutter Island” has a good set-up (first reel is great), a rather lugubrious and too fractured mid-section, and a terrific last reel and closure, which explain my overall mixed-to-positive reaction.
Even the quality of the acting is not consistently high. While DiCaprio, in a tough leading role, is commanding, some of the supporting actors, particularly the usually great Max von Sydow, are not very convincing, a function of the writing. And of the three women in the cast, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, and Patricia Clarkson, only one truly shines, Clarkson, and in a dual role. Clarkson’s cave scene with DiCaprio, in the saga’s second half, is such a highlight in terms of acting and unsettling audience’s expectations that you wish the rest could have been on the same level.
Set in 1954, at the height of the McCarthy political witch-hunting, Cold War, UFO, and other paranoias, when Americans felt bewildered and insecure, not knowing what was going to happen next, “Shutter Island” blends the conventions of the horror, paranoia, thriller, detective, noir, and supernatural genres, with touches of psychological realism and claustrophobia as manifest in movies set within isolated prisons and asylums (there’s a long tradition of Hollywood pictures). On another level, the film could be perceived as Scorsese’s tribute to the classic German silent, made during the Weimar-period, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed by Thomas Wiener.
To be fair, the source material is rather tricky for a smooth and facile big-screen adaptation, and while scribe Kalogridis (better known for TV work) meets most of the tasks, the inherently jagged narrative lacks consistent dramatic momentum, sort of glue to connect the disparate chapters. “Shutter Island” is very much a movie in which individual parts are stronger than the whole.
This is the fourth collaboration of DiCaprio with Scorsese, following the disappointing “The Gang of New York” (2002), which was not good for either man, “The Aviator” (2004), which was glitzy and old-fashioned, “The Departed” (their best teaming so far), and now “Shutter Island,” which challenges both artists. Scorsese has always gravitated towards character rather than plot-oriented tales, and in this picture, he tries to do both—to varying degrees of success.
Scorsese’s impressive achievements are in the visual department (especially the lighting, courtesy of ace lenser Richardson) and in guiding DiCaprio into another stellar performance, offering deep psychological insights into a troubled paranoid persona. The actor plays a far more complex part than he did as the paranoid Howard Hughes in “The Aviator.”
At the center of “Shutter Island” is the shattering experience of Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio), the hard-bitten war veteran and bright U.S. Marshal, who claims to have witnessed the horrors of the death camps and to have shot in cold blood numerous Nazi officers (all shown in brief flashbacks).
When we first meet Teddy, he’s aboard a small ferry, on his knees throwing up in the toilet. Not the best way to introduce himself to his new partner Chuck Aule, (Mark Ruffalo). The couple is en route to the island’s hospital (actually more of a prison) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a brutal killer. However, the longer they stay, the deeper they sink into an abnormal (and paranormal) reality, defined by dizzying riddles, haunted subjective memories, and unrelenting fears. What’s going on?
Predictably met with resistance, Teddy’s investigation runs into one obstacle after another. Before long, he begins to believe that he’s being manipulated, watched, perhaps even drugged and pushed into the dark edges of his own sanity.   Is he being warned away from getting at the “bigger truth” of Shutter Island, or drawn into a horrific medical experiment? And if so, is he a subject or an object? Clearly, there are all sorts of hidden agendas that keep Teddy and Chuck (who barely talks in the first reel) in this frightening, isolated, and impenetrable place.

Gradually, it becomes clear that Teddy has come to Shutter Island devoted to solving a mystery, but that he’s also burdened by his own agenda and secrets. But is her reliable? There’s more to Teddy’s journey than there appears to be.

“Shutter Island” touches on the perennial Hitchcockian theme of appearances versus reality. The movie poses a question asked by all of us, at one point or another in our lives: Am I mad, or is the world around me mad? What’s real and what is not? Subjective versus objective reality? In the best Hitchcockian way, unfolding like a layer cake, the story is constantly jarring us, unsettling our sympathies, shifting and moving in various, unanticipated directions

Though the couple of sleuths, elegantly dressed in brown and beige suits, is starting to build trust, they’re always suspicious about each other’s intentions. At one point, it seems that Chuck is out there to protect Teddy, but later on, it feels he’s pushing him towards a downfall, if not reckoning.

Soon, Chuck, Teddy’s partner, is also swept up in the mysteries and conspiracies on the isle, which surrounded by huge rocks and is experiencing one of the worst torrential rains.
Take the brilliant Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), who watches every move of Teddy and Chuck’s, while pretending to help them find his dangerous, missing patient. He has an interesting perspective on his profession, at a crucial period in time, when there was battle raging between the old therapies and the new drugs and surgical approaches like lobotomies.
Wearing a green suit Oxford brogue shoes and sporting a perpetual pipe, Dr. Cawlrey is on the one hand a man with his feet planted on the ground, but one the other, he’s utterly devoted to promote ambitious scientific enterprises Like the other characters, Dr. Cawley is also defined by secretive, dangerous missions that the government and the medical authorities may or may not know about.

Then there’s Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) a former Nazi and one of Ashecliffe’s most ominous and threatening figures, running around with needle in his hand, ready for action. Dr. Naehring represents the other (negative?) side of the psychiatric profession.
The three central femmes are even more perplexing, particularly Teddy’s dead wife Dolores, who’s accused of abominable crimes. (I am not spoiling anything here, because the first in which Dolores lost her life is depicted in the very first reel). Dolores is caught up in every paranoia imaginable, with paralyzing anxieties about war, about being spied on, about not being safe.
Dolores appears, as herself or as an apparition, in mostly bloody, dream-induced deluges.
Also present is the inmate George Noyce (Jackie Earle Haley, in another formidable turn after the Oscar-nominated “Little Children”), a mysterious, battered man from Teddy’s past.
Dolores isn’t the only woman who haunts Teddy during his journey to Ashecliffe hospital. The other one is Rachel Solando, the disturbed murderess whose inexplicable escape brings him to the island in the first place, who appears in two incarnations (played by Patricia Clarkson and Emily Mortimer).
In her other part, Clarkson is like the Oracle of Delphi, engaged in a ritualistic encounter, but acting “normal,” and playing in straightforward manner with no tricks or gimmicks. She represents another twist and turn within a film that operates on several levels. Just when you think she might provide the truth, or at least some solace and peace of mind, not to mention the journey’s endpoint, you find out that there are more twists to come.

At first, the film seems to be just another intriguing noir detective story but, as it goes along, surprising (even shocking) events and new layers emerge, along with roller coaster twists, with characters getting stranger and stranger.
(Not to worry: All of the story’s carefully-built skeletons of secrets are eventually exposed, if not explained). The story is like an archeological dig, made up of layers under layers.

As noted, stylistically, the movie offers many visual pleasures, as the tale is defined by flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, period elegance expressed in costumes, altered states of mind, film noir vocabulary, and touches of the Gothic and supernatural genres.

With a running time of 140 minutes, the picture over extends its welcome by at least 20 minutes or so.

Watching, or rather experiencing, “Shutter Island” is like being in a nightmare you can’t wake up from, a nightmare that constantly keeps changing, getting darker and darker, stranger and stranger.

Reviewed on February 4, 2010.

Cast:

Leonardo DiCaprio
Mark Ruffalo
Ben Kingsley
Michelle Williams
Emily Mortimer
Patricia Clarkson
Max von Sydow
Jackie Earle Haley

Credits
Production: Paramount Pictures presents a Phoenix Pictures production in association with Sikelia Prods. and Appian Way
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: Laeta Kalogridis
Based on a novel by: Dennis Lehane
Producers: Mike Medavoy, Arnold W. Messer, Bradley J. Fischer, Martin Scorsese
Executive producers: Chris Brigham, Laeta Kalogridis, Dennis Lehane, Gianni Nunnari, Louis Phillips
Director of photography: Robert Richardson
Production designer: Dante Ferretti
Music: Robbie Robertson
Costume designer: Sandy Powell
Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker

MPAA: R
Running Time: 140 Minutes