Thursday, March 4, 2010

Shutter Island

The boat rolls out of a fog so dense that it renders everything a brilliant white. It might as well be sailing straight out of 50s film noir. Aboard it U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels vomits violently in the washroom. This is a man who has not repented for the sins of his past and carries that burden atop his every move. As an agent he looks the part: tan suit, sharp hat; the whole nine. As played by Leonardo DiCaprio he’s a seasoned professional: been too many places to be much surprised anymore and seen too many things to much care. And yet he carries hidden secrets in the way he holds his shoulders and hangs his head. To him, this new case at the state run mental hospital for the criminally insane will be an in-and-out job but his partner Chuck knows better, “If these guys only heard voices and chased butterflies they wouldn’t need us.” The men are escorted to an entrance gate, surrounded by looming brick walls and guarded by emotionless men with big guns. They are instructed to hand over their weapons because, as a state run facility, it is the law that the guards carry rank over the cops. They’ll play by their rules or not play at all. While a storm brews outside they are lead to Dr. Cawley, the man in charge. He is played by Ben Kingsley which means he is proper, well-spoken and pristinely mannered, while also managing to give the feeling of always holding something back. It doesn’t help that his colleague at the institution is played by Max von Sydow who has made a career out of always holding back deep secrets that give off ominous tones. That’s the set-up to Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, the director’s first excursion back into thriller territory since Cape Fear and his first into classic horror and film noir. Two Boston cops are sent to the isolated institution in order to track down an escaped patient that no one will admit to having seen escape or know exactly how she went about it. “It’s as if she just evaporated through the walls,” assesses Cawley, and he may be right; there seems to be a lot of spirits haunting the walls of Shudder Island, or at least the pain of their memories. The girl in question is Rachel, who drowned her three children and still, according to Dr. Cawley, has no idea what she has done or that she is even in an institution. The grounds are divided into three buildings, a ward for the men, a ward for the women and Ward C, which used to be an old Civil War post and houses the most dangerous criminals. No one is allowed access to Ward C without the accompaniment of both Cawley and the warden. As the investigation progresses Teddy is attacked by migraines and visions of his wife who was killed in a fire and to his days during World War II in which he saw dozens of men slaughtered without mercy in a concentration camp. As the investigation progresses and Teddy gets closer to uncovering the truth, his inner demons take him closer and closer to the physiological breaking point. What about the institution that triggers these dark feelings in Teddy is one of its many secrets, of which I dare not continue to hint at. This is a brilliant set-up for Martin Scorsese to evoke that golden period of classic horror and film noir, which consisted of wounded men carrying their emotional baggage around on their shoulders, drifting from one job to the next, always searching for some sort of inner redemption that is just out of reach. Here Scorsese once again proves himself the master of tones and moods, of implying more by showing less. Shutter Island is, if nothing more, a brilliant exercise in set design, lighting, costumes and editing. Every frame is meticulously constructed to convey the sinister undercurrents that could lie around every dark, damp corner of the wards. Consider the way Scorsese slowly tracks the camera through desolate spaces in ominous point-of-view shots; how high angles reveal labyrinth mazes of unending stairs and corridors; or how the camera cranes up from close-ups to reveal imminent danger lurking in the background. Not to mention Ward C, when Teddy finally gets there. It’s a virtual hell-on-earth that will go down as one of the great horror sequences of its time. As a thriller, the first two thirds of Shutter Island are riveting and we eagerly anticipate what new tricks Scorsese has up his sleeve. And then, as most thrillers tend to do, the film loses touch in an effort to ceaselessly explain itself (a verbal description in the third act is followed by a flashback that visually depicts the exact same thing) and we’re left with another case of the explanation being of much less value than the buildup, leaving the sinking realization that the material has no intention of rising to the occasion that Scorsese and his actors have set for it, leaving the director trying to pull rabbits out of empty hats. And yet Scorsese’s brilliance as a filmmaker still stands outside of the story and keeps the wheels spinning. The filmmaker’s mastery of his craft oozes into every perfectly constructed shot and the film thus, even when stalling, feels like a work of art to be hung on the wall and pondered over the delicacy of its creation. As the greatest living filmmaker working in America, Shutter Island will not be remembered as Scrosese’s best film. In lesser hands it wouldn’t even pass as a tolerable thriller and yet even as its plot crumbles down around it, as an evocation of a classic, long forgotten genre and all its moods, textures and surfaces, it is just about a perfect stylistic exercise.


  1. I still have to see this, but I'm glad you're liking it.

  2. Will probably have to wait and rent this one. I'm easily scared by horror movies! Thanks for the review, glad to hear it's good

  3. I really enjoyed it. Not as good as The Departed but another good effort from Scorsese with a top performance from Dicaprio and an ending of real power. I was left a little cold by the revelation but I thought Scorsese made up for it by veering away from a happy ending.