' Cinema Romantico: Shutter Island

Monday, February 22, 2010

Shutter Island

The opening passage of Martin Scorsese's latest film is extremely telling. U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is aboard a small boat destined for Shutter Island, a prison in Boston Harbor housing the criminally insane, where apparently a particular patient has gone missing. Daniels and his brand new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), brand new so Teddy can immediately provide him information to fill in a few blanks for the audience, are on their way to investigate. But listen to the soundtrack. It is packed with loud, ominous tones, whaling away on our eardrums. You think, "What, is King Kong waiting for them on Shutter Island?" Still, the music grows louder, especially when we get the establishing shots of the island itself, skulking alone in the mist, a storm brewing fatefully in the distance.

All movie long, Scorsese, the old master, distracts us from the put-together-the-puzzle mystery/horror of "Shutter Island" by cranking up the soundtrack to inordinate decibels and tossing out every trick contained within his significant bag. Artful flashbacks and dependable character actors up the wazoo. If some exposition has to be delivered make certain the exposition-deliverer is framed by a flickering flame or ensure the two characters are traipsing through a hurricane to heighten the drama.

Once on the island the two marshals, Teddy always with a cynical frown, Chuck always with a bemused, skeptical smirk, meet the prison's medical director, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley). Apparently the escaped prisoner, Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), murdered her own children, and now she has somehow fled her cell, despite the fact the windows are barred and her door was locked, without the aid of shoes, despite the fact the ground all around Shutter Island is most unforgiving. The marshals, of course, don't buy it. Something is up. Someone helped her. But who? Why?

More layers of this haunted house onion will be peeled. Teddy is obviously distrustful of Cawley's colleage, Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), once the camera deviously pans around a blood red armchair revealing him to be smoking a pipe and talking in an accent that gives away his German heritage. See, many of the flashbacks show us Teddy in WWII Nazi Germany. He saw horrible things that scarred him for life and it seems his presence on this island is re-triggering those memories.

It seems obvious to Teddy that there is far more at play on Shutter Island than a mere patient disappearance. Why is one block of the asylum housed in an old Civil War fort? What happens in the far-away lighthouse that appears cordoned off? Why does one patient whom the marshals interview scribble a single word in Teddy's notebook...."Run."

The film is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote the novel on which the masteful "Gone Baby Gone" was based. "Shutter Island", despite the arsenal of directorial stunts employed by Scorsese, is nowhere near masterful. Instead it is massively disappointing. But what's the difference? Both films, of course, involve deception and twists but the sake of surprise is never "Gone Baby Gone's" sole intent. That's the difference. When the most crucial reveal of all turns up in "Gone Baby Gone" the audience thinks about how they might react in a similar situation and if the right choice really was made by the main character. You feel the story's full scope rather than just feeling it's clever chicanery. You leave the theater with some real questions about the world and our place in it. But when you leave "Shutter Island" all the audience thinks is: Did you know in that scene that so and so knew? When you did know that so and so knew? Did you see this clue? Did you see that clue? How did so and so find that out?

Truly there is some difficult, disturbing material at the center of "Shutter Island". But to use that material in the service of nothing more than some gussied up guessing game is the film's real tragedy.

1 comment:

Castor said...

After nearly 8 weeks of nothing-ness at the movie theater, I am ready for winter to be over! I can't wait to see this even though the reviews are solid but not great. I will let you know what I think when I see it :)