Thursday, April 1, 2010
Shutter Island **1/2
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley
Emily Mortimer, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, Elias Koteas
Max von Sydow, Ted Levine, Jackie Earle Haley, John Carroll Lynch
The opening scene in Shutter Island contains the entire movie; the Paramount Studio logo fills the screen while an ominous string music fills the air. Then all of a sudden the title cards appear, with no dissolves or fade outs. Seconds later we see U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) head over a toilet, suffering an extreme bout of sea sickness.
He cleans up, fixes his tie and goes outside where he meets his new partner Chuck Aule (Ruffalo) as they approach the title island (an Alcatraz like fort that harbors an asylum for the criminally insane).
In the old fashioned typography of the credits and the musical nod (which reminds you of something Franz Waxman would've done) Martin Scorsese declares his film will be a throwback to classic noir, gothic and horror films.
But for those paying enough attention, he also gives away the film's plot-and polarizing twists-direct and indirectly (those caring to find out in advance need to do no more than psychoanalyze the concept of vomiting and get creative after an apparent continuity error).
It can be said that because of this effect the film is arguably spoiled for those seeking a mystery flick and also ruined for those seeking a psychological study who instead of being rewarded with a complex whodunit get a facile howcatchem.
Scorsese, who's always been a precise filmmaker, has trouble conveying both predominant aspects of the film and while he obviously has a lot to say (the whole movie is filled with infinite movie homages and references) he tries to say it all at once.
This is evident in the convoluted plot, adapted by Laeta Kalogridis from a novel by Dennis Lehane, which shows us the investigation the marshals conduct in the island (the mysterious disappearance of a patient played by the excellent Mortimer) but also tries to convey the troubles inside Teddy's mind (related to the death of his wife, played by a beautifully creepy Williams) the extent of which also involves WWII traumas and HUAC conspiracies.
Soon the plot has trouble finding its way, if any, among the constant new information we receive; this somehow never really deepens the mystery but makes the film drag, as people who know what's coming undergo an endurance test and those unaware of the twists are drowned by the intense, but vague, dream sequences.
Therefore the film is at its best, when along with editor extraordinaire Thelma Schoonmaker and director of photography Robert Richardson, Scorsese indulges the audience with the power of his images.
There are scenes, involving surreal dreams and flashbacks, that go to places he's rarely visited since The Last Temptation of Christ; places where Michelle Williams bursts into flames and Nazi soldiers are executed in front of the frozen corpses they originated.
Some of these moments achieve the kind of beautiful nightmare qualities David Lynch has become an expert at and while giving Marty mostly new territory to explore, fail to click within the whole.
If one of the purposes of Shutter Island was to blur the division between reality and imagination (or to study if there is any when it comes to specific human perception) Marty's obviously more into one than the other (deciding which is which brings yet another dilemma).
For someone with Scorsese's kind of attention to detail, we also wonder why would he give the audience clues about the mystery and then forget to keep up the game.
The best element of the film is arguably Leonardo DiCaprio who gives one of his richest performances letting himself fall completely into whatever the movie is (he works that final line to the extent that he convinces us we saw a much better movie). He's obviously onto something no one else is and creates an affecting portrait of fear, passion and confidence about to shatter.
He is excellent in moments where other actors might've exaggerated and seeps into the brooding essence of someone like Robert Mitchum (appropriate given Out of the Past hugely shaped the feel of the film), his interaction with the superb, if somehow underused, cast is revelatory.
There's a scene with Clarkson that probably would've made a much more interesting film and his moments with the Vincent Price-like Kingsley and the perversely calm von Sydow, both playing asylum doctors, are spellbinding.
As a whole the experience of Shutter Island can be reduced to a paraphrase of the film's closing scene and lead us to wonder if a so-so Scorsese movie is worse than no Marty at all.