Saturday, September 25, 2010

Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island Movie Review

It’s hard to avoid seeing the parallels between Shutter Island and Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio’s two films from this year. Both deal heavily with illusion versus reality and the way we perceive the world. They both deal with madness, the former more than the latter. In both films the driving force behind DiCaprio’s characters’ actions is the tragic loss of his wife. And the soundtracks of both films are characterized by the droning sound of low horns in the orchestra, which in this film is a reminder of a ship’s foghorn. Although the two films have similarities in their subject matter, they could hardly be more different in terms of tone and directorial approach.

Shutter Island is director Martin Scorsese’s latest collaboration with DiCaprio (now halfway toward matching the number of films Robert De Niro made with the director). As usual Scorsese brings a stylized touch to the material, which in this case is Dennis Lehane’s novel, adapted for the screen by Laeta Kalogridis. If you’re familiar with Scorsese’s work, you’re likely to recognize the quick pans, sharp edits (which must be at least partly attributed film editor and longtime Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker), slow motion as well as sped up footage, and long tracking shots.

DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshal on assignment sometime in the mid 1950s to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a patient named Rachel Solondo from Ashcliffe Hospital, a mental institution for the criminally insane on a small island in Boston Harbor. He arrives by ferry from the mainland with his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). Upon their arrival they are met with curt treatment, first by the deputy warden (John Carroll Lynch), who insists they relinquish their weapons during their stay, and then by the chief psychiatrist, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley). Teddy’s face begins to register suspicion early on. Is the staff at this institution hiding something?

This certainly appears to be the case as the investigation deepens and we meet Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), one of the psychiatrists on the board of overseers. Teddy, a veteran of WWII and a member of the unit that liberated Dachau, has a mistrust of a German psychiatrist he fears is there to continue the experiments of Nazi doctors like Josef Mengele.

Teddy himself brings a fair amount of baggage onto the island. He’s carrying around the grief over the death of his wife, Dolores (played in flashbacks by Michelle Williams), the work of an arsonist who may also be a patient at Ashcliffe, and the guilt and trauma over his experiences at Dachau. His own psychological state may force him into a catch-22 whereby he can be declared insane. Any protestations to the contrary will simply be seen as denial. This is what he’s told by a woman he meets on the island (Patricia Clarkson), who claims to have once been a doctor and then later a patient.

The film is much more than a Scorsese foray into genre filmmaking. It’s a character study, a great mystery with elements of film noir. Teddy and Chuck speak like they learned their jobs from watching detectives on cinema screens. But then maybe there’s good reason for that – where else would they have learned to talk like detectives?

Scorsese is best known for making gritty urban crime dramas with characters struggling with Catholic guilt. The only aspect missing from Shutter Island is the urban setting. Instead it’s a claustrophobic prison on an island. Even when they’re outdoors, there’s no escape due to a storm which precludes the possibility of any ferries taking them to the mainland. If the film bears a visual resemblance to other recent Scorsese films and nearly all of the work of Oliver Stone, that’s because it was shot by Robert Richardson, the cinematographer who’s worked on nearly all of Stone’s films and four or five of Scorsese’s recent ones.

Richardson is fond of harsh focused lights emanating from directly above the characters. You can see this effect in Stone’s JFK, Nixon, The Doors, and Natural Born Killers, and Scorsese’s The Aviator and Bringing Out the Dead. Whereas Stone seems to prefer this look for any film, Scorsese has only chosen to work with Richardson on the films that involve characters descending into madness. It’s a highly stylized look for a film, but effective in achieving a washed out look over the protagonists, keeping them sharply in view for the audience while they disappear into their own dark worlds.

Because Scorsese is a legendary director, just about any actor would jump at the chance to work with him, even if it is a minor role. That’s why Shutter Island is so well cast right down the seemingly insignificant roles. In addition to von Sydow, Williams, Clarkson and Lynch, there’s Emily Mortimer as Rachel; Elias Koteas as the arsonist responsible for Dolores’s death; Ted Levine (serial killer “Buffalo Bill” in Silence of the Lambs) as the warden, who has one key scene; little known, but wonderful actress Robin Bartlett as an inmate; and Jackie Earle Haley (making the weirdest Hollywood comeback in history after playing a pedophile, Rohrschach in Watchmen and Freddy Krueger) as an inmate in the infamous “Ward C” for the worst of the worst. Having the small roles filled by exceptional actors, for me, is a key factor in making a good movie. They fill out the edges of the story, give it life. They elevate what would already be a very good movie to something even better.

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