Written by: Laeta Kalogridis (screenplay) and Dennis Lehane (novel)
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, and Max Von Sydow
Reviewed by: Brett G.
ĒYou'll never leave this island...Ē
When I first came on board here at OTH, I never thought Iíd be given the chance to review a film by one of my favorite directors of all-time in Martin Scorsese. At best, I thought the legendary Oscar-winnerís 1991 redux of the suspense-thriller Cape Fear would be the closest heíd ever come to the horror genre. This was until the announcement of Shutter Island, a period piece that looked to offer plenty of thrills, suspense, and even perhaps a dash of supernatural activity. The film also promised to re-team Scorsese with long-time collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio, who has already cemented himself among the finest actors of his generation. Originally set to come out last October, the film was pushed back to this weekend in the hopes that it would garner a bit of awards buzz. Whether or not it will accomplish that remains to be seen, but I can say without hesitation that Scorsese has crafted another piece of brilliant film-making here with a film thatís atmospheric, emotionally-charged, thought-provoking, and, ultimately, thrilling.
United States Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and his newly-assigned partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), have been charged with the task of investigating the disappearance of an inmate, Rachel Solando, from a hospital for the criminally insane. Resting off the shores of Massachusetts , Shutter Island Ďs asylum houses not only dozens of madmen, but perhaps also a giant conspiracy thatís full of mysterious experiments and similar disappearances. As Daniels delves deeper into the case, the burdens of his own traumatic experiences as a soldier in Nazi Germany and the death of his wife begin to wear down his psyche. The walls between reality and fantasy soon begin to crumble even around Daniels , who has seemingly uncovered a devious plot within the walls of the asylum that is also linked to his own past.
While the supernatural elements hinted at by the filmís trailer are nowhere to be found, Shutter Island still manages to be a fairly thrilling and even spooky good time. The first half of the film essentially feels like a noir-tinged old dark house movie that happens to be set in an asylum. Indeed, the opening shot of a ship breaking through a murky fog on its way to the mysterious island is an early tone-setter. Likewise, the establishing shot of the island and the subsequent approach to the asylum is scored by a foreboding piece of classical music that would feel appropriate in a classic horror film. The movie is full of other haunting set-pieces, like an old graveyard, rocky, storm-battered cliffs, and of course, the more derelict parts of the asylum itself. Thereís even something a bit off-putting by the two doctors in charge of the institution(Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow) that lends credibility to Danielsís conspiracy theory.
However, as the film wears on, we are introduced to the most horrifying setting of all: the human mind, particularly its ability to produce frightening and violent imagery. Daniels is already haunted by the grisly images of the concentration camp he witnessed as a soldier: piles of skeletal Jews frozen to death in a tangled mass, the face of a German soldier dying in agony after a botched suicide attempt, and, most importantly, the mass, unlawful execution of a horde of German soldiers in which he participated. He also carries with him painful memories of his wife who died in a fire two years prior to the events of the film. On top of this, it is revealed that the missing patient, Rachel Solando, drowned her own children, which resulted in her incarceration. This story, along with the other disturbing aspects of the asylum, combine with Danielsís own delusions to produce an even more fractured psyche that concocts nightmarish sequences that are strewn with violence. Scorsese handles these sequences deftly, as he is able to both capture the unflinching and brutal violence and place it within the confines of an artful narrative.
Once Daniels himself and his attempt to unravel the islandís conspiracy becomes the forefront, Shutter Island becomes a textbook white-knuckle thriller thatís full of twists and turns. While none of these plot twists (especially the ultimate one) are groundbreaking from a film perspective, few films have been able to manage them with such grace. While many psychological thrillers are content to throw in a revelatory twist out of obligation, Shutter Island is a film where the twist isn't as important as the journey that gets you there. Itís so satisfying to see how all the pieces easily slide into place by the filmís end. There are many thrilling and even horrifying elements about Shutter Island, but it is ultimately a film that muses on the effects of guilt, regression, and even paranoia on one man. The script and DiCaprioís performance work in concert to create a psychological portrait of a man who carries his burdens on his sleeve and even gives them life in the form of his own delusions and nightmares. Like any evocative film noir, the past is always present, and the shadows of Daniels's past soon begin to shade every step of his descent. There's even the requisite "dark woman" in the form of his wife (Michelle Williams) who is physically dead, yet very much alive in Daniel's mind as a force urging him towards destruction.
DiCaprioís performance is just one of many excellent turns by the impressive ensemble cast. While DiCaprio is obviously given the most to work with in terms of range, the rest of the cast supports him. Ruffalo continues to be an actor to watch in the future, as his turn as Aule brings another sympathetic element that especially supports DiCaprio. As the two men get caught up in the increasingly labyrinthine conspiracy that drives Daniels mad, Aule is like an anchor that keeps the audience grounded in reality and sanity. Both Kingsley and Von Sydow play their suspicious, mad doctor roles well, though the latter feels like a bit of an afterthought in the grand scheme of the narrative. The film also features some very convincing performances from an almost unrecognizable Elias Koteas and Jackie Earle Haley as a couple of scarred and disfigured inmates. In short, you get exactly what you would pay for with a cast thatís full of Academy Award winners and nominees, though thereís truly not a weak link to be found anywhere.
Of course, these types of performances are exactly what weíve come to expect from Scorsese over the years, and the director himself also brings his A-game to the table. Expertly shot and meticulously edited, Shutter Island is a beautiful looking and well-paced film. Scorseseís trademark intensity takes over the film with every shot, especially once the third act ramps up. The director also manages the more low-key and seemingly innocuous scenes as well; in particular, he employs some crafty, sleight-of-hand editing techniques and shot selections that remind us that maybe we shouldnít even be trusting the camera itself at times. The filmís score is also a bit unique in the sense that there isnít really one; instead, Scorsese tapped Robbie Robertson to compile pieces of modern classical music for the film. This approach works well due to the rich scope it presents, as it ranges from being beautifully sublime to downright ominous at times.
Weíre only two months into 2010, and Shutter Island has already set the bar rather high for suspense-thrillers. While the various plot twists and nightmarish imagery might be the most immediately memorable aspects of the film, itís ultimately the emotional resonance the film exhibits. At times, DiCaprioís performance as Daniels is gut-wrenching to watch because the character is so meticulously brought to life. Some might question Shutter Islandís status as a horror film, but thereís little doubt that the film shows us the horrifying depths of human behavior, and itís all tied into a complex, well-wrought, and emotional drama that delivers just about anything one could want from a film. The film is also ultimately thought-provoking without being overly ponderous and existential because it makes us question the best way to approach guilt and regression. While that isn't easily answered, thereís little question that it's worth taking a trip to Shutter Island--just be warned that, like the eponymous island itself, the haunting film might have you in its grip even after you leave. Buy it!
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