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Shutter Island

(2010)

Directed by

Martin Scorsese

 Shutter Island Poster

Review by Todd Plucknett

Posted - 2/21/10

 

This film was my most anticipated since long before I first saw the trailer last spring. Since, I had seen the trailer so many times that it was beginning to wear on me. Then the film gets pushed back to early 2010 from late 2009. I did not know what to think. Could it really be that bad that they took Marty out of the Oscar race to release it when nothing else is playing? Could Paramount have just made a huge mistake, denying the film its rightful place in the 2009 Best Picture lineup? I had both thoughts running through my head for the past 4 or 5 months. How did it wind up fairing? Check it out.

Shutter Island is the first film by Oscar-winner Martin Scorsese (feels so good to finally call him that) since his film The Departed took Best Picture honors back in 2006. In essence, this is nothing like he has ever done before. It is a gritty psychological thriller, but it is also a twisting detective story and an astonishing character study. Being based on a novel by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone), it had huge shoes to fill. Those were two of the best crime films of the past decade. Who better to take on a hugely popular crime novelist’s source material than the master of crime himself? The film works very well, blending all the genres together into one satisfying motion picture that should be essential to any movie buff.

The story is all about Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), a US Marshall who is called to the remote Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of a woman (Emily Mortimer) from a hospital for the criminally insane. He arrives on shore with his partner (the always reliable Mark Ruffalo), who is the one guy who keeps a level head throughout the whole ordeal. The heads of the hospital are Dr. Cawley (Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley), the Warden (Ted Levine), Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), and the Deputy Warden (John Carroll Lynch). All of them seem to be hiding something. Even from the beginning, something sinister is going on. Are these people messing with the heads of the patients and the detectives? Or are the truly criminal patients (Jackie Earle Haley, Elias Koteas, Patricia Clarkson) the ones causing Teddy to have horrible nightmares, reliving the death of his beloved wife Dolores (Michelle Williams)? All of this unfolds in remarkable ways, and the film goes creepy, mind-blowing places that Scorsese has never explored. It is next to impossible to not get caught up in the brilliant 1950s atmosphere of suspense and deception.

The script was written by Laeta Kalogridis, who wrote a couple flops including Alexander, but is also collaborating with James Cameron on his 2011 project Battle Angel. In a lot of ways, the film is not too indifferent from Alexander. I personally loved that Oliver Stone-directed box office disaster. This film has a lot of the same visual flair. A lot of the images in both films are incredibly over-the-top, but are essential for the material and to establish the director’s atmospheric vision. That being said, this will be a lot more widely popular film than Alexander and is an endlessly better script.

The acting is incredibly strong in the film. It always is with Scorsese pictures, but never has it been so secondary to the atmosphere. Recently, the films he has made (minus The Aviator) have been so much about tone and satisfaction of the audience with an actual plot that the acting takes a back seat. So many times in the earlier Scorsese pictures, there was a central performance, and the film was all about studying that character. The Departed, Gangs of New York, and now Shutter Island dive deep into an irresistible plot and blow the audience away. That is not to say that these films are not well acted. They are all among the best acted films of their respected years, but they just aren’t the actor showcases his past films have been. Having said that, this is one of the most astonishing casts I have seen assembled. Even the tiny one-scene characters are played by Oscar nominees or well-respected character actors. Everything starts and ends with DiCaprio, though. His Teddy Daniels is his most complex character yet, and he brings it to the screen with incredible humanity and brilliance. It only proves more that he is not just Scorsese’s new De Niro, but he may be the new De Niro period. His incredible string of excellent decisions and brilliant films has really paid off. Also, somehow he has managed to not become overexposed, which often happens to people that make so many good films in a row. He stays out of the spotlight when he is not acting.

If I had to compare this film to another Scorsese picture, it would have to be Cape Fear, one of my personal favorite underrated and underappreciated Scorsese mini-masterpieces. The intensity level is there the entire film. That was Scorsese’s first $100 million movie, and this will eclipse that mark fairly shortly. The set design is very similar. It may seem minimal, but the atmosphere and look of the later Cape Fear scenes are basically reestablished here. The whole film is in that element, though. There is never a moment for the audience to stop, breathe, and contemplate what is going on. You probably wouldn’t be able to figure it out even if you had a moment. So the audience, like me, sat there spellbound and marveled at the plot turns and brilliant actors tearing up the screen.

Another thing I can say about Scorsese is that he has always had a way with dream sequences. All the way back to his feature debut Who’s That Knocking at My Door, Scorsese developed a remarkable way of portraying dreams. The ones here are almost hallucinatory, which brings to mind almost a David Lynch quality. Also, Scorsese has made it no secret that he loves diving into the mind of a mentally unstable lead character and/or one with a skewed reality. He found his next Travis Bickle/Ruper Pupkin/Jake La Motta in Teddy Daniels. It never ceases to amaze me how Scorsese can take even the strangest material like this or Bringing out the Dead or After Hours and still bring the same amount of compelling drama to the film. He really can do anything.

Now that I just put a crown atop Scorsese’s head, I have to admit some faults with the film. There are definite plot-holes that are left up in the air. At times, the visual effects are not believable, particularly in the opening ferry sequence. There are very familiar plot devices that are used throughout the film. The pacing is off at times. The twists can be revealed far before it actually is uncovered by the characters if the audience is trying to look ahead and find possibilities about what it could all mean. But unlike what several critics have said, this film is not about the twist. Dennis Lehane can write a twist better than any crime novelist I have ever come across, but this film is much more about the psychology of the characters. Even when the twists are coming out, it challenges the audience. The character development is so strong that you do not want to accept what actually is going on behind all the webs of deception and intrigue that built up throughout the first part of the film.

You can tell that Scorsese was really inspired by Hitchcock with Shutter Island. There were some instances that will undoubtedly bring to mind some of Hitchcock’s most unforgettable scenes in North by Northwest and Foreign Correspondent. Even the music felt like one of Hitchcock’s crime films from the 1950s. Scorsese just once again proves that he is the best director who has ever lived. This film is one of his first that brings about an almost alternate reality. Most of his films get such incredible acclaim for being some of the most realistic and gritty takes on storytelling that anyone has ever done. This one, however, almost never seems real. That is all part of the package, though. This is basically another Scorsese masterpiece, though it is far from his best; his second tier films eclipse almost any other director’s top-level films, though. This film will likely divide audiences, and who knows what will happen at the Oscars next year (Paramount can suck it for pushing The Lovely Bones instead of this). The release date will probably cost the film the nominations it deserves, but that is not what this film set out to do. It set out to challenge the audience and stretch the talents of everyone involved. Even if you know the twists (I sorta got tipped off myself on what might happen), you will still be immersed in the atmosphere. Love it or hate it, it is at least a film that you will not soon forget. I can promise that much.

 

Rating:

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