“A lot of people know about this place but no one will talk. It’s like they’re scared of something.”
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Laeta Kalogridis (screenplay), Dennis Lehane (novel)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Max Von Sydow, Emily Mortimer
What struck me first and foremost about the new genre flick Shutter Island is that it is incredibly, distractingly corny right off the bat. The lead standing there like a smug cop from a 1940s film noir, cliche dialogue, sinister gothic buildings and music so outrageously ominous it is almost funny. But of course nothing is as it seems. Or would we want it to be, because that would be no fun at all. As we would hope, director Martin Scorsese has more in mind than just a passable genre film .
Over the past decade Scorsese has started to resemble some of his studio era heroes with his choice of material. A historical epic (Gangs Of New York), a biopic of an American icon (The Aviator), an intricate cops n’ robbers drama (The Departed) and now a draconian psychological thriller. It’s a story about Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio), a federal marshal from Boston (“Bahston”) and his partner (Ruffalo) who come to the mysterious Shutter Island, home of an infamous mental institution for violent offenders. One of the patients, a woman who murdered her children, has escaped and the G-men are tasked with finding her. Things get heavy when we learn that somewhere among the disturbed inmates may be the man who killed Teddy’s wife (Michelle Williams), the death of whom still constantly haunts him. Oh, and nothing is as it seems. Did I say that already?
Here Scorsese seems happy enough for the first part of the film to simply play around with genre conventions, saturating every frame with various cinematic affectations. While the gimmicky facade is there for a reason, and later acknowledged, the heavy-handed style is often tedious and even grating at times. Thankfully though, as reprieve from the overwhelming style we are often shown Teddy’s recurrent nightmares. In these we can sense that we’re closer to the problems at the core of Teddy (though maybe not sure what those are exactly). In these short fantasies Scorsese’s bag of horror tricks can work menacingly well. Haunted memories of Nazi concentration camps, ghostly children, dangerous convicts, sharp Kubrick-like cuts and the harsh sounds of John Cage create an atmosphere in which you can truly feel Teddy’s sanity slipping from reach. It’s when we’re back on the island, amidst a sea of red herrings and soul-crushing buildings that horror sometimes turns unintentionally into torture.
The cast list is absolutely stunning as you may have noticed. Scorsese’s golden boy Leo sustained my interest for the whole film, many times seeming to be the only emotional presence in the film, but occasionally slips into melodrama. In movies where ‘nothing is what it seems’ often you have good actors playing non-actors playing parts (badly). While this “part inside a part” gives the film a strange edge, it nonetheless distanced me from connecting to the film as a whole. I want to make special mention of Emily Mortimer though, who plays the small and difficult part of the escapee Rachel Solando. Her performance was able to touch a nerve little else in this film was able to.
While getting there is an uphill battle at times, the way the story plays out is quite masterfully done and the “twist” is certainly worth it in my opinion. The film asks some tough questions and wisely does not attempt to answer them like you might expect from an average thriller but never from Scorsese. He turned Shutter Island, a decent pulp novel into a challenging film only he could have made. I just wish he could have made me feel it a little more.
Great Moment: Jackie Earle Haley’s single scene as the gruesome-looking George Noyce.