Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Saturday, February 20, 2010


by Brian Holcomb


NOTE: While I have done my best to avoid "Spoilers" in this review it is very difficult to discuss Shutter Island without making allusions which MAY spoil the story for you. If this is a problem for you, then read this review AFTER you see the movie.

Dennis Lehane's novel is one of those tricky narratives that can be a booby trap for unseasoned filmmakers. At first glance it seems like prime B movie material: a puzzling mystery set in an old, dark island asylum during a terrible storm. With violent waves crashing the rocks and an old lighthouse, you can imagine it in flickering black and white on the late show. Had it been written in his lifetime, Alfred Hitchcock himself may have been inspired to adapt it. It's clear Scorsese saw it that way. He's crafted a movie that could act as a film school essay on Hitch's methods of subjective POV, geography shots, and shell game deception. Or as the director said himself in the elaborate ad he created for Freixenet wine The Key to Reserva, "It has to be the way he (Hitchcock) would've made the picture then only making it now. If he were alive making it now, he would make it now as if he made it back then." Seen this way, it appears to be nothing more than an exercise in style. But Scorsese has more up his sleeve than a dead director's trademarked bag of tricks and with the unique challenges presented by the material he needed them.

Leonardo DiCaprio makes his fourth film with Scorsese in the role of U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels, a man who appears to be very much on edge as he meets his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) on a ferry riding rough seas towards the sinister looking Shutter Island. The island is located in Boston harbor and is the location of the high security Ashcliffe Asylum "for the criminally insane". The year is 1954 and they have been called in to investigate the case of Rachel Solondo, a dangerous patient who drowned her own children and has somehow, inexplicably disappeared from her cell.

Strangely, Daniels seems less interested in the specific case of Solondo so much as confirming certain suspicions he has of those running the loony bin. These would be the pipe smoking Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and the particularly sinister Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sydow). Both seem shifty to him. Daniels seems shifty to us.

The story is set in a nervous 1954 with one foot in nuclear and communist paranoia and the other in the horrors of Nazi atrocities in WW2. Teddy Daniels knows those firsthand having been part of the liberation forces at Dachau. These memories haunt him almost as much as those of his dead wife (Michelle Williams) and children. He tells Aule that they died in a fire started by a man named Andrew Laeddis. He believes Laeddis is now a patient at the asylum. When Aule asks him if this is his personal reason for coming to the island, Daniels claims he's after something bigger.

So is Scorsese. Shutter Island is the kind of material that Hollywood loves. A twisty thriller with what M. Night Shyamalan would promote as a mind blowing ending. Of course, this is the very booby trap I mentioned earlier. Making a film that is dependent on some last minute "switcheroo" is a recipe for disaster. Particularly if it involves invalidating what we've been watching for nearly the entire running time. This is about as close to an "it's all just a dream" ending as they come. The challenge is in how to handle this twist so that it does not come completely out of left field and yet still remains surprising in its specifics. As David Mamet once said about endings, a good one should be both surprising and inevitable.

Hitchcock "back then" may have toyed with the material to see if it could be redesigned for better cinematic suspense. He had done this with the Pierre Boulle-Thomas Narcejac novel that was the basis for Vertigo. By shifting the structure slightly, he let the audience know important information about the surprise ending BEFORE James Stewart, the protagonist, did in order to trade shock for tension. But even he may have been dumbfounded by this novel. Most likely it would've been sent straight to his TV unit at Revue Studios instead.The material is really best suited for a half hour Alfred Hitchcock Presents because at that length audiences would not feel cheated by the duplicitous plotting and narrative illogic. Not to mention that the story comes ready made with one of the show's trademark ironic fade outs designed to haunt the audience afterwards. Only here we get some extra emotional wallop due to DiCaprio's fine performance (quite possibly the best work he's ever done) and from the film's references to the real life horrors carried out by mental health institution in the 1950s.

Scorsese seems to have been keenly aware of these challenges himself. But his solution is remarkable in its simplicity. He directs a single movie that tells the story of Teddy Daniels instead of one that pretends to be about a mysterious disappearance on Shutter Island that suddenly becomes about Teddy Daniels. He lays the trick virtually bare and lets the audience suspect that things aren't what they appear to be from the start.

It's an approach that is risky and one that won't work for everyone. There is always the danger that the audience will get too "into" the Rachel Solondo disappearance plot. Those audiences will most likely hate this movie with a passion. But most viewers should find much to enjoy in Shutter Island. A good deal of it is an exercise in style and few filmmakers are as accomplished in this department as Scorsese. The film drowns you immediately into a paranoid and physically threatening atmosphere that never lets up for most of its 138 minutes. The island itself is a triumph of production design and digital fx work. It's exactly the frightening place you would imagine a gothic madhouse to be located. The feeling of the cold and wet is all over the film due to a setting surrounded by water below and from the tumultuous skies above. All of it is expressed as being seen from Teddy's POV and Scorsese encourages cinematographer Robert Richardson to let the lens go wide, the shots to shift speeds, and to play in subtle reverse motion. The film is in color but that color is grey. You have to go back to Kubrick's The Shining to find a film as extreme in its attempt to envelope the viewer in a singular isolated mood. Scorsese was clearly thinking about the Kubrick film as several shots reference it directly and he has his old buddy and music supervisor Robbie Robertson select intense atonal music from Kubrick favorites like Ligeti. So we get a movie that looks very much like Hitchcock but sounds like Kubrick.

The casting is impeccable. Every second of the film features some of the finest actors working today. Some are only in one scene but they make so much out of their small moments that the characters linger long after. Besides the fine work by Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams and Max Von Sydow in larger roles, you get amazing turns by Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine, Emily Mortimer, Elias Koteas and Patricia Clarkson. But even with that amazing cast, this is really DiCaprio's show and the actor creates a sense of desperation and human frailty that overpowers the film's narrative chicanery. Because of his fine work, the movie ends up being a whole lot more emotionally moving than you'd imagine it would be.

Besides, it's a Scorsese movie and this is a filmmaker who is still possessed by passion-he seems very, very excited by the Hitchcockian images, the chance to do some Red Shoes type expressionism and to dig into a mood filled with massive guilt. Beyond plot and character, Shutter Island is a visual poem about the loss of self, the loss of humanity and the overwhelming tidal wave of grief that is sometimes locked within.

Shutter Island
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Laeta Kalogridis from the novel by Dennis Lehane
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Max Von Sydow, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Elias Koteas, Ted Levine
Running Time: 138 minutes


lotushead said...

Spot on review. I literally figured out the ending in the first scenes but I still could not look away for an instant. When the inevitable ending played out, I found myself absolutely floored in a way that the 'twist' in itself could never have achieved. Scorsese shows us very clearly why he is a master filmmaker and DiCaprio's performance is the lynch pin that the whole thing turns on. Great movie and great team! Oh and the Mamet quote sums it up to perfection.

Corey Cox said...

Is it just me (relative film novice), or is anyone else busy on Netflix renting Shock Corridor, Psycho, The Shining, Out of the Past, Bedlam, The Snake Pit, The Seventh Victim, Laura, Time Limit and (I may be going off into the weeds) Jaws? I you think of others, what? I liked the movie, but love the subtexts. What fun.

Brian said...

Thank You, Lotushead. Trading the shock of the twist for something more emotionally resonant was the best choice IMHO.

Corey, those are all movies that Scorsese clearly devoured before making SHUTTER ISLAND. I would also add ISLE OF THE DEAD to the other Lewton films you listed as Scorsese always refers to that as being one of his favorites and it DOES take place on an island. I would also say that stylistically, there's quite a bit of Mario Bava in there as well...and Michael Powell's THE RED SHOES.

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