Monday, December 9, 2013

Film Review: Shutter Island

"Shutter Island"  **** (out of ****)

I first saw Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" (2010) back when it was in theatres. In fact, I saw it on opening day, given my great appreciation for Mr. Scorsese's work. At it's time of release I called it one of the year's best films and placed it on my "top ten" list that year (in the number nine spot).

It marked the fourth collaboration between Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. Previously they had worked together on "Gangs of New York" (2002), "The Aviator" (2004) and "The Departed" (2006), the only film Mr. Scorsese has made, to date, to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director. Each one of those films is a masterpiece. I placed all of them on my "top ten" list in their year of release.

As much as I enjoyed watching "Shutter Island", at the time, I felt it was a highly entertaining psychological thriller but compared to their previous films, "Shutter Island" seemed to be the weakest of the bunch. Watching the film a second time I think I am struck more so by it. It is in no way a "weak" film compared to "Gangs of New York" or "The Departed". It is every bit as good as those movies and now I would say DiCaprio gives an incredibly complex performance here that matches any of the performances he gave in other Scorsese pictures. Both the movie and DiCaprio's performance do not have to take a back seat to anyone.

What immediately gripped me on a second viewing of this film is the concept of what is reality. Whose story are we watching and when can we tell what is real and what is fiction? In some ways I was reminded of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" (1980). That movie also had an unreliable narrator. Like Scorsese's masterpiece "Taxi Driver" (1976), "Shutter Island" is a movie which presents us with a troubled mind. We are sinking into the world of a mad man. A man with several demons inside. A man with obsessions which will not let go of him. They control him and he must, at every corner, surrender to them because he no longer knows what is real and what is the product of his imagination.

The story takes place in 1954 Boston. We follow two U.S. Marshalls; Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) a rookie cop from Seattle. They are headed to Ashecliff, an asylum for the criminally insane. The men are called when a patient, Rachel (Emily Mortimer) has escaped without a trace. The head doctor, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) needs their help before the woman turns violent and kills again.

Problems start when we learn Teddy is suffering from his own problems which distract him from the case. He is a WW2 vet and memories of what he saw in Germany still linger in his mind. He also lost his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams) when she died in their apartment when it set on fire, killing her and three other people.

Teddy and Chuck seem to keep running into dead ends. No one saw Rachel leave. She has left no traces of her whereabouts. Her doctor is on vacation and cannot be reached due to a violent storm which has cut off communication on the island. The only way of escape is by ferry and with the weather the ferry will not be coming any time soon.

Besides the other inmates, which aren't very helpful, the only other person to question is Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), Dr. Cawley's partner, a German doctor.

We soon learn Teddy had reasons for wanting to be assigned on this case. He believes the man who killed his wife is in the asylum. Furthermore, he believes the asylum is conducting experiments on its inmates in an anti-Communist scheme. Teddy wants to expose the asylum and find the man who killed his wife.

The longer Teddy stays on the island, on the asylum's ground, the more paranoid he becomes. The doctors don't seem to be very helpful. Chuck has a way of disappearing. And Teddy can't let go of the images he saw during the war and the sight of his dead wife.

The first image we see in "Shutter Island" is of the ferry bringing the men to the island. It is coming out of a fog. It looks like a ghost ship. There is eerie music playing in the background, something Bernard Herrman (Hitchcock's most trusted composer) might compose. It all creates an unsettling feeling. The viewer knows trouble is ahead.

The film, based on a novel by Dennis Lehane and adapted to the screen by Laeta Kalogridis, was a box-office success for Scorsese but wasn't a critical darling. Many people felt it was a good movie but a genre exercise. Not a piece of cinematic art from Scorsese. How wrong they were. The movie hits on important themes, which I have explained. Lehane's work was also the basis for Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River" (2003) and "Gone Baby Gone" (2007). Both are amazing movies. Kalogridis wrote the Oliver Stone film "Alexander" (2004) and "Night Watch" (2004), in my opinion a truly awful Russian sci-fi film. Lehane's novels are about damaged men traumatize by events from the past. Moments which made them feel helpless and eventually that helplessness turned to hopelessness. "Shutter Island" is no different.

DiCaprio has to go through so many emotions, it is as if he is playing more than one character. In any particular scene he has to hit highs and lows of emotion. His mood must constantly shift. He must express vulnerability, anger, paranoia, confusion and heartbreak all at the snap of a finger. It is a very challenging role and DiCaprio pulls it off brilliantly.

At one time I didn't like DiCaprio. It was around the time of "Titanic" (1997). I thought he was merely a young actor who was going to get by on his looks and the adoring eyes of young women. But that has not been the case. His work with Scorsese has shown him grow as a actor. He takes risks. Few would be able to pull of this role.

"Shutter Island" is a modern masterpiece. A gripping, edge of your seat thriller. It is a genre exercise, that is true. But Scorsese puts so much craft into this. He carries the movie along beautifully. He is a conductor in full command of his orchestra. Everyone plays every scene for all it is worth. He has created another memorable look inside the world of a disturbed mind.