Monday, February 22, 2010

"Shutter Island"

Shutter Island - Directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, and Michelle Williams - Rated R

Scorsese has crafted a thriller as chillingly effective as Chigurh.

Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is a bit of a departure for the acclaimed director. The film is a psychological thriller, emphasis on psychological. It is jarring, confusing, visually stunning and is incredibly effective when it comes to creating empathy for Leonardo DiCaprio’s character.

This film is as much DiCaprio’s as it is Scorsese’s, mainly because the focus is so squarely on DiCaprio’s character, Teddy Daniels. The film, which takes place in 1954, starts out literally in the fog, which is very fitting since the audience and Teddy are figuratively in the fog for the entire film. Teddy, a federal marshal, and his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) are on a ferry en route to Shutter Island, home to a creepy mental institute which is missing a patient. This sounds like the set up for a basic detective/mystery movie, but Shutter Island is anything but. The film is partly about the search for a missing patient, but there is obviously something more going on with Teddy.

Teddy has a troubled past, which we see in disjointed flashbacks. He lost his wife in a house fire and he is haunted by his actions in World War II. Scorsese handles the psychological issues of Teddy masterfully. The camera movement and multiple angle scenes instantly give you a chaotic feeling. The visuals are striking, especially Teddy’s flashbacks. I found the scenes from the concentration camp from Teddy’s WWII experience to be particularly effective.

What sets everything off, though, is the use of music. When the marshals first approach the facility, the score is foreboding to the point that it is overbearing, which I think is intentional. The rule is usually that a good score is effective but not noticed, but Shutter Island is the exception to that rule. It’s overbearing at one moment, eerie and strange the next, and nonexistent during the most powerful scenes. I know it’s strange to think that a score is at its most powerful when you can’t hear it, but less is sometimes more, especially when the more is so loud.

Scorsese tells the story in such an effective way, but the film is basically a character study, which means the entire film hinges on DiCaprio’s performance. DiCaprio is as good as ever in this one. When I heard about this project, I decided to read the novel it was based on. As I read, I found it hard to believe that DiCaprio was starring. I just couldn’t imagine him as a tough 1950’s detective with a war hero past, but he pulls it off and I never once thought that he looked out of place. On top of that, DiCaprio handles being the subject of constant close ups quite well. You can see the confusion/frustration/anger in his face throughout the film. DiCaprio has become one of the most consistent stars of Hollywood and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

This is DiCaprio’s show, but he still gets support from a talented cast. Ben Kingsley is great as Dr. Cawley. He speaks every line with a menacing calmness that added tension to every scene. Max von Sydow adds some gravitas as a fellow doctor. Michelle Williams, as Teddy’s dead wife, does a fine job as well. The most notable performance, however, is that of Mark Ruffalo. But I can’t explain why without giving spoilers for the film, so check out the spoilers section at the end of the review for more on that.

Speaking of spoilers, there are many people that claim they had this movie “figured out” after the first few minutes. I read the book first, so I knew the story already. I can’t say if the film is obvious from the get go. I will say this, though. I started to have my doubts about how it ended midway through…even though I knew how it was going to end. Make sense? The point is that you may have an idea very early on about what is happening in the story, but the filmmaking and the acting is so good that you’ll start to doubt yourself. Also, this film is a great example of the journey being the reward. I’m not saying the plot isn’t vital to this film; I’m saying that when you’re dealing with Martin Scorsese, you’re in for a full film experience, not just a story.

Shutter Island is definitely worth a close watch. It’s the most effective type of thriller: the kind that makes you question not only the characters on screen, but also yourself. But it isn’t for everyone. The film can definitely be described with one word: weird. Weird is good, though. There are plenty of “normal” movies out there. I suggest shelling out a few dollars to check out a weird Martin Scorsese film, and enjoy the journey.


Okay, let's talk Ruffalo. Early on, his performance is borderline cheesy. He seems to be hamming up this whole 1950's detective thing. This is actually a great performance, though. Ruffalo's character is actually a doctor impersonating a federal marshal. He does a great job of giving a bad performance. Ruffalo's acting is one of the many hints Scorsese leaves for the audience. If people figure out early on what's going on, I imagine a lot of that has to do with Ruffalo's character. There's an early scene in which the marshals have to hand over their guns. DiCaprio complies with no problem. Ruffalo, however, takes a considerable amount of time removing his holster, something only an amateur would have trouble with. Later on, while questioning a patient, the patient waits for Ruffalo to leave the table before she scribbles a note for DiCaprio.

Now, would these hints have given the whole movie away had I not first read the book? I don't know. The cheesy acting job wouldn't make sense until after you knew the twist so that wouldn't add to it. The holster thing is pretty obvious, though. So I think at the very least, I would have been suspicious of Ruffalo throughout the film.

This is what I really liked about the film, even though I knew the twist going in (for the record, I still haven't given away the twist, but just saying a movie has a twist is a spoiler, I suppose) I still had a great time dissecting it. I know that everything in a Scorsese movie is there for a reason and a close viewing is rewarded in the end. Whether or not you are fooled by the story does not matter. The simple fact that the film rewards close scrutiny is good enough for me.

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