March 1, 2010
Review - " Shutter Island " - (in theaters) By Roland Hansen
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Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max Von
Sydow, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer
This is the third film made from a Lehane book. The most famous
and successful was Mystic River, directed by Clint Eastwood into a
multi-award winning 2003 film. In 2007, Ben Affleck directed his
brother Casey and Oscar-nominated actress Amy Ryan — along
with the likes of Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris and Amy Madigan —
in Gone, Baby, Gone.
And now Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese takes us back to
the paranoid Cold War era in Shutter Island. This psychological
thriller, set in Massachusetts in 1954, follows U.S. Marshal Teddy
Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule
(Mark Ruffalo) as they venture to Shutter Island, home of the
fortress-like mental institution Ashecliffe Hospital, to investigate the
inexplicable disappearance of a patient named Rachel Solondo. To
make matters worse, a hurricane has trapped the two cops on this
godforsaken rock for the time being.
As they try to determine how Rachel escaped and her current
whereabouts, Teddy and Chuck are stonewalled by the warden
(Ted Levine) and the hospital’s urbane but shifty administrator, Dr.
Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley), who is championing a (then)
revolutionary new method for treating the criminally insane. The
deeper Teddy digs into the mystery of Rachel’s disappearance and
what is really going on at Ashecliffe, the more he himself grows
disturbed. Teddy becomes haunted by memories of his late wife (Michelle Williams) and of the atrocities he witnessed as a G.
I. during World War II. Has Teddy been exposed to something sinister on Shutter Island that’s causing this breakdown, or has
Ashecliffe simply unleashed demons that were already within him?
The head of the facility, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley as the embodiment of every overly-cultured film-noir authority figure), is
more a hindrance than a help at nearly every turn. His right-hand man, the constantly probing Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sydow),
is sinister and German. The latter - combined with Naehring’s choice of music on the record player at their first meeting -
makes Teddy suspicious of a possible Nazi past. And yet we’re given hint after hint that things aren’t what they seem and don’
t add up as they should. Teddy has memories of being one of the liberators of Dachau and recognizes the music as Gustav
Mahler’s String Quartet - an odd choice for the commandant of a concentration camp, given the Jewish composer, and an
obscure choice for anyone, since it’s a rarely played unfinished work (only one movement was completed).
Things become more off-center as Teddy has nightmares that mix up the liberation of Dachau with his wife’s death in an
apartment fire set by a pyromaniac, Laeddis (Elias Koteas), who, according to Teddy, was sent to Shutter Island and then
simply vanished. Or did he? Could Laeddis be the 67th patient Dr. Cawley insists doesn’t exist? And why is Teddy’s wife
Dolores (Michelle Williams) dripping wet in his dreams if she died in a fire? Everything - even the unreal, 1950s process-work
look of the ferry ride to the island - is geared to make Teddy and the viewer increasingly confused about what is and what isn’
t real. However, both we as viewers and Teddy are given the very hints we need to unravel things - the question really is why
and to what point? Where is the increasingly nightmarish vision taking us?
DiCaprio just gets better with each film, especially the ones he makes with Scorsese. As they did in The Aviator and The
Departed, Scorsese and DiCaprio have created another protagonist perpetually on the verge of losing his grip as they
intensify the pressure on his psyche until the stress finally causes a climactic rupture. There are layers to DiCaprio’s
performance that should be more evident upon subsequent viewings, but he is, along with Christian Bale, one of the few
young actors who can bring depth, complexity and subtlety to obsessed, often unhinged characters.
The rest of the cast is solid. Ruffalo is tasked with perhaps the most challenging role in the film, while the reading of Kingsley’
s character is entirely dependent on the reliability of the protagonist’s questionable perspective. I don’t want to say more
about their roles than that, suffice to say their performances become increasingly critical as the narrative draws to a close.
Michelle Williams’ role is a small but pivotal one. Jackie Earle Haley has one gripping scene with DiCaprio that further
showcases why he’s become such an in-demand (and deservedly celebrated) supporting actor these last few years. It’s also
nice to see Max von Sydow appear in a Scorsese film, albeit in a rather one-note role. Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson and
Elias Koteas also have small but showy roles.
You can appreciate its style, atmosphere, production values, direction and the lead performance by Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s a
B-movie made by A-listers, with Scorsese fashioning his most Hollywood movie since Cape Fear (and maybe even more so
than that film). Shutter Island is a great filmmaking exercise for Scorsese to make the type of pulpy, overwrought genre B-
movies he grew up watching. It plays like an old Hammer horror film (Vincent Price could have played either the Kingsley or
von Sydow roles back in the day).
From the opening shot, Scorsese creates an
atmosphere of gloom and uncertainty that
permeates the entire film. He transports us to
a frightening, alien world populated by
untrustworthy and dangerous people. You’ll
feel like you’re really inside a 1950s asylum in
Shutter Island, and that sense of authenticity
and ominousness - thanks to Lehane’s
research as well as the cinematography,
production design, costumes, score and sound
design - keeps us invested in the protagonist
and his plight.
Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is the first
great film of 2010. It is a well-acted, handsomely
made, old-fashioned haunted house movie.
Shutter Island is a film to be seen more than
once - and a film to be savored. It reveals new
depths and undercurrents at every turn. As far
as the twist is concerned, don’t get so wrapped
up in it that you miss the double-whammy real
twist at the very end - and the moral ambiguity
inherent in it.