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Film Review: Shutter Island

Note: One of my planned uses of Random Dangling Mystery will be to serve as the new home of the quick-thoughts reviews of films that I see. I had previously written and posted these on Facebook’s Movies application, but they’re more likely to reach an audience here. I will also intermittently post existing, notable reviews from my Facebook Movies profile at Random Dangling Mystery.

Shutter Island (2010; Directed by Martin Scorsese)

“Are we in a Scorsese movie, boss?”

Shutter Island is a bold, brassy, unintentionally goofy post-millenial mind-thriller genre piece that presents the choice between delusional psychosis and sinister conspiracy as “po-tae-to, po-tah-to” personal perspective toss-up. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a borderline-unhinged man haunted by his wife’s death, a trauma that inspires but also inhibits his job. The film’s key passages take place in the world of dreams. There are guns fired. Please stop me if this starts sounding familiar at any point.

Yes, Martin Scorsese’s engaging but limited potboiler (adapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane, the Bostonian who penned Mystic River) beat Christopher Nolan’s similarly-pitched but much more prominent Inception into the theatres by a few months (it would have been more if not for a studio-imposed delay). But it’s beaten by Nolan’s more spectacle-driven take on this sort of material in most (but not all) other ways.

DiCaprio continues to spend his 30s reeling through noirish roles requiring overwrought psychological suffering and excessive perspiration, this time as federal marshal Teddy Daniels, who comes to the forbidding titular island’s Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane to investigate not only the escape of a dangerous patient, but also a shadowy government brainwashing conspiracy that may or may not be connected to the deep scars of his own tragic past.

Accompanied by Chuck, an aw-shucks agent from Seattle who may not be what he seems (Mark Ruffalo, who is much more physically convincing as both a g-man and a former G.I. than DiCaprio, with his fading, vestigial matinee idol features), Daniels meets with resistance and obfuscation from the psychiatrists running a modern talking-cure operation for the twisted murderers at the facility. Ben Kingsley is the most formidable of these, his smug British precision squeezed with vague menace through his high suit collar, but as if he isn’t enough, we also have the stentorian Max von Sydow as a former Nazi doctor. Not the most creative casting, to be sure, but still effective in the small doses he is applied in.

The byzantine plot grinds through the gears fairly mechanically up to and through its predictable course-change at the onset of the final act; as Andrew O’Hehir points out in his Salon review, storytelling has hardly ever been Scorsese’s strongest point as a filmmaker. But Scorsese and his longtime cinematographer Robert Richardson focus instead on the dank visual mood, laying it on thicker than the plot does (and this is a plot that includes a hurricane, a prison break, dead children, and a concentration camp flashback). Even incidental exposition scenes are shot with fearsome geometry; when Chuck lays out the rumours of psychological experiments at the facility to Daniels, he does so in a claustrophic crypt; later conversations between Daniels and characters who may be insane patients, silenced whistle-blowers, or something else entirely are foregrounded with images of firm separation like rusted bars or flickering flames.

But the saving visual graces of this overwrought, leaden narrative are surely the exquisitely-staged dream sequences that the unravelling Daniels experiences. These scenes, in particular the “fire and ash” dream sequence between Daniels and his deceased wife (an underused Michelle Williams) and the Dachau flashbacks featuring a pile of dead bodies frozen into a Pieta-like sculptural frieze and a seemingly unending dolly-shot of a massacre, embed suggestive visual details and also achieve the sort of trangression between conscious and subconscious reality that is key to the Freudian view of dreams (and is entirely absent from Chris Nolan’s spartan, rule-bound dreamworlds in Inception). The strongest indicators of Scorsese’s fabled visual bravado, they stand out from the generic muddle around them, elevating that muddle if only for fleeting seconds and forcing you to take imminent notice of what’s happening, even if (especially if) it’s not, strictly speaking, “real”.

Those sequences aside, Shutter Island is hardly a poorly-made film, and even has a worthwhile idea or two lurking beneath the ponderous weight of themes like mental illness, guilt, and genocide. Like Inception, it presents an either-or concluding dilemma summed up in its symbolically-charged final shot (a lighthouse as opposed to Nolan’s famous spinning top), both sides of which can boast plentiful textual support and neither side of which is morally ironclad. But on even less of a level than Inception, Shutter Island evokes little beyond its intensely atmospheric purview. It’s hard to really imagine any world existing for Teddy Daniels (or whatever his name is an anagram of) beyond Shutter Island, and that limits the interpretive wiggle-room we’re given by Scorsese. The shutters on this island are never really open, and that locks us into place as viewers, to an extent.

For more analysis and context on the film, watch the “fire and ash” dream sequence and read Matt Zoller Seitz’s analysis of it at Film Salon as part of their Best Scenes of 2010 feature here.

Categories: Film, Reviews

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