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Movie Review: “Shutter Island” is Voluptuous, Moody, Not Entirely Successful Cinema

25 Feb 2010

THE CLOUDS HANG like a dark omen. Two cigarettes sizzle blood-orange in the fog: an apprehensive reply to the island, a hulking shadow which has emerged from the brooding haze. Low musical notes swell to a loud crescendo, then ebb quietly into a nook at the back of the brain. From the start, “SHUTTER ISLAND” affects a world that is dizzying and uncertain. No wonder our shudders come easy.

Here, MARTIN SCORSESE has employed cinema to its buxom fullest. The dread that pervades the disappearance of an insane asylum patient from her locked cell in 1954 is visceral, cerebral and emotional. Based on the 2003 novel by DENNIS LEHANE (“Mystic River”), the film is an exploration of repressed pasts. How can we face the unthinkable violence and horror we have committed and, indeed, are capable of committing?

“The past is never dead,” quoted Scorsese in his acceptance speech for lifetime achievement at the Golden Globes. “It’s not even past.” For U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (LEONARDO DICAPRIO), his past occasionally surges forth like the storm that whips Shutter Island. As he and his partner Chuck (MARK RUFFALO) search the fortress-turned-asylum for a missing invalid locked away for drowning her three children, Teddy also sees flashes from a Nazi concentration camp he helped liberate and visions of his murdered wife Dolores (MICHELLE WILLIAMS).

High cliffs overlook crashing waves and the ghostly outline of a distant lighthouse – its true purpose uncertain – dots the landscape. Inside, the rooms are claustrophobic, the floors spiraling upon one another – an architecture not helped by Teddy’s constant migraines.

Mood is the most compelling achievement here. In this department, the past also continues to operate as Scorsese draws on the film vocabulary of classic noir, psychological thriller and the horror genre. At the start of the film, we behold the marshals’ point of view as they are driven through the sinister stone gates of the mental institution. Guards holding rifles stare ahead lifelessly and an old female patient – face skeletal, eyes gaping – brings a finger to bloodless lips.

There are shades of Hitchcock and Lynch in the way the world feels off-kilter and things happen, then un-happen. No one on the isolated rock offers  helpful direction to the marshals. Characters disappear, only to casually reappear later on. The institution’s director Dr. Cawley (BEN KINGSLEY) and his German colleague (MAX VON SYDOW) seem to cat-smile their way through all the questions. All the while, Teddy hears whispers of torturous psychological experiments being conducted on the island not dissimilar to those once carried out at the Dachau concentration camp.

It’s not possible to talk about the film without first unspooling the mystery, but let there be no doubt that Scorsese, ever the perfectionist, consciously aimed to confuse. Whether his strategy succeeds entirely is another issue.

“The mood and tone of the picture and the atmosphere was in my head, it’s in my blood in a way,” said Scorsese at a press junket in London. “Once I decided to make the film, I have to find my way into that mood to choose, select, emphasize moments and sound and ultimately thats when I call in my collaborators.”

Teddy’s dissolving sense of reality – one you can sense in DiCaprio’s weary squint – is tied to the film’s structure itself. The movie asks questions that have answers not meant to be immediately clear. What exactly is happening on Shutter Island? Who can we trust? Ruffalo especially straddles the line between empathetic and suspicious just perfect and likewise, Kingsley imbues his oily director with the right dosage of distanced amiability.

As with any Scorsese picture, the cast is top-notch. Beyond the strong main performances, also welcome are brief appearances by Ted Levine as the prison warden, Patricia Clarkson as a psychiatrist, Elias Koteas as Dolores’ murderer and Jackie Earle Haley as an anguished patient.

Whether it be a twitching Nazi officer’s blood pooling onto the polished wood floor or the silhouette of a inmate crouched in the dark of his cell, Scorsese’s long-time cinematographer Robert Richardson and editor Thelma Schoonmaker ensure that the visuals linger. Forgoing “Gimme Shelter”, Scorsese also recruited Robbie Robertson of The Band to supervise the compilation of a modern classical score both outrageous and gut-wrenching.

With all the haunting sounds, images and mystery afoot, “SHUTTER ISLAND” certainly compels. Some reviewers have been alienated, however, by its ambiguous plot twists and madcap dream sequences. The movie is a pastiche of narratives, genres and film references. The indecision as to the exact kind of cinema it wants to be may not sit well with some viewers.

As to whether the film’s revelations genuinely put the puzzle to rest, even I have some qualms with. Even a final flashback with Teddy’s wife Dolores, played with utmost sincerity, feels uncertain after such a long and winding labyrinth. We want an established world, one we can believe in. But then again, maybe such a place never existed at all.

Rating: 4/5

(Originally reviewed for The Middlebury Campus)


One Comment leave one →
  1. 9 Mar 2010 11:58 PM

    Terrific write-up! Your obviously a very talented writer(very engaging) and I’m looking to reading more entries on your blog.

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