Friday, February 19, 2010

The Island of a Lost Soul

Film Review - SHUTTER ISLAND (2010)

Screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis
Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane

Directed by Martin Scorsese

A number of years ago, an interviewer asked Martin Scorsese why he never really branched out into various movie genres and directed, say, a western. He replied that, since a master like John Ford established his brilliance with the form, what could possibly be there for Scorsese to add? When I heard that answer, I was crestfallen, always hoping that one day our Greatest Living Director would decide to ply his hand to the Horror genre, yet knowing that, as much as he admired such films as The Haunting and The Innocents, he didn't feel up to the task. But jump ahead to a few years ago, when Scorsese brought an old Hitchcock treatment to life and produced the short The Key to Reserva, and perhaps a few dark wheels were set in motion, for now we have Paramount's delayed release of the Scorsesean take on Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island. It's clearly been sold as Horror (it features more than a few ghosts, but not necessarily ectoplasmic in nature), but it begins as a stylish Technicolor-noir exercise in paranoia and anxiety, and winds up a shattering character study that transcends and triumphs over its pulpy origins. It is, in a word, electric.

The year is 1954, and a ferry is disgorged through the fog off the coast of Massachusetts, bound for Shutter Island and Ashecliffe, the asylum for the criminally insane that sprawls over a deceptively bucolic campus. U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are called to investigate the disappearance of one of the island's 66 prisoners - or patients, as they are reminded by Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley, mercifully delivered from dreck like A Sound of Thunder or BloodRayne), a psychiatrist transitioning from the barbaric practices of the past to more humane methods of compassion through empathy. The missing woman is a mother who drowned her three children in Medea-like fashion, and she's vanished from a locked room. But Daniels is suspicious - there is no way that a barefoot young woman could escape into the craggy, thorny environs without someone seeing her or assisting...that is, if she ever existed in the first place. For Daniels has long believed that there are medical atrocities afoot on Shutter Island (sponsored by no less than HUAC), and as a veteran of the liberation of the death camp at Dachau, he's witnessed all the atrocity required for a lifetime of nightmares. Layer on his grief at the loss of his young wife (Michelle Williams, literally and figuratively haunting), and the fact that Asheville may be housing her arsonist-murderer (Elias Koteas, his face held together by surgical staples), and Daniels realizes he is on a mission far greater than the disappearance of one woman.

And THAT just gets us to the end of the second reel. What follows is as labyrinthine a plot as any Scorsese has committed to film, as doubts pile on top of doubts, twists and switchbacks take us in any number of directions, and we are pulled as deeply into the mystery of the island as is DiCaprio's character. Only a director at the absolute peak of his craft could keep this narrative thread from being lost (unlike, say, for his nephew's fifth birthday party), but Scorsese is able to prevent it from becoming entangled with little obvious effort, and still have all the technique to pull off a menacing reveal of a Max von Sydow when needed, or get astonishing sidebar performances out of Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley or Ted Levine, whose scene feels like a first. (Here's a switch - Scorsese eschews his traditional "found pop songs" score for jarring, jangly compositions from the likes of Ligeti, Penderecki and Schnittke - very powerful, very Kubrick-ian.)
From sight to sound to editing (see Thelma Schoonmaker drop out the occasional frame or seven to keep us ill at ease during even the quiet moments), this is bravura filmmaking at the service of a compelling storyline, and the result is a pure manic pop thrill.

Until, suddenly, it isn't, and that's when Shutter Island achieves true greatness. At an essential moment in the storyline, Scorsese's stylized approach departs for scenes of raw, unbearable emotion (surely one sequence in particular must rank among the most difficult DiCaprio has ever been required to play), and that's when his legendary ability to work with actors on shaping scenes of uncompromising honesty steps to the fore. His camera never leaves DiCaprio's side, and of their four collaborations, Shutter Island feels like a culmination, a final integration of the actor's Boy-Becoming-Man that allows the character's woundedness to tattoo itself across his still-unlined face and reach a palpable sense of loss. It's a masterful performance that ranks among his best - made all the more remarkable by its humble Noir-Cop beginnings.

So why did we have to wait to see this? Why was it pushed from a Fall 2009 slot? Word is that Paramount was scared. They had a movie that demanded the attention of the audience, and there simply aren't a lot of those getting released anymore now, are there? (Fair warning - there were a goodly number of patrons at my matinee today who were hopelessly bewildered. Maybe they should have sprung for a repeat showing of The Blind Side.) But the better news is that it was a full house, as all moviegoers have learned that a Scorsese film is an Event. (There is such a predominant "ash" theme that I wonder if one-time seminarian Marty has a appreciation for the rare opening of one of his films during Lent.) From its Gothic windswept opening scenes to the final, static, heartbreaking shot, Scorsese has once again crafted an Event - and not just for those with a taste for darkness.

Now, my fellow bloggers, I beg of you - no spoilers, ok?


Anonymous said...

I've picked my jaw off the keyboard. What an amazing review coupled with my breathless anticipation for wanting to see this so badly. Seeing it on Sunday. I can't wait.

Jeff Allard said...

Great review, as expected! I second your enthusiasm for DiCaprio's work here. His performance - especially as the final act comes into play - is astonishing. There's a lot about what makes this movie truly excellent that would be great to discuss but that would involve too much in the way of spoilers. But I will say that the last moments of the film were as shattering as any I've seen in some time.

senski said...

It's a bear of a film to write about, huh, Jeff? You almost have to dump out of it at the 45 minute mark, and then be awfully coy. I'm glad you liked it as much as I did - it's a stunner.

senski said...

And PoT - I predict you're gonna have a memorable time on Sunday. (I'm jealous of anyone who gets to see it for the first time!)

coffeefortwo said...

Had this stuck with its original release date, I'd have a different pick for the best movie of 2009. Instead, as in 1980 and 1990, Marty gets to kick off a new ten year span by throwing down the filmmaking gauntlet, reminding everyone what a masterpiece looks like.

If I'm not being clear, I like it.

senski said...

I so wanted the challenge of doing The Reel Thing, having to talk about it, and yet truly being unable to. Makes kvetching about My Girl and The Crying Game feel like a walk in the park, eh?

Unknown said...

Wow, what a fantastic review.

I'm in complete agreement with you in regards to the third act. Oddly enough, I've heard some people complain that it went on too long after th "twist" was revealed. I never felt Scorsese was aiming for shock value. The way these events unfold, as well as the coda on the stairwell at the end were simply brilliant.

senski said...

Sometime a "twist" is merely the natural development of the storyline, the next beat of the plot. Scorsese isn't playing "keepaway" with the twist, the characters are - and discovering why they are is one of the joys of the film.

Amanda O'Brien said...

John and I LOVED your review!! Austin just went tonight and loved it. Think we'll go on Saturday--can't wait.