Friday, March 26, 2010

Shutter Island (2010) Review

Emerging through a darkened fog, a lone boat carrying a pair of tough talking U.S. Marshals are en route to the Ashecliffe Instutition for the criminally insane, located on the enigmatic Shutter Island off the coast of Massachusetts. Suffering from a nasty case of sea-sickness, young investigator, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) meets his new west-based partner, Chuck Aule(Mark Ruffalo), and venture into the isolated complex, on the trail of a child-murdering patient who has strangely gone missing. The newly teamed pair are greeted, and assisted by one of the facility's top psychiatrists, Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley), who's practices are considered cutting edge for 1954, a time where behavioral studies & treatment were slowly creeping out of a near-barbaric age of surgical treatment. Cawley's benevolent manner doesn't help the easily agitated Daniels who cannot see why so many hurdles are laid out for what could easily be seen as a routine hunt for an escapee. That is until soon into their journey, the detectives discover that this may very well not be the case at all. Patients & staff seem to be in on it, suspicion is abound, and paranoia envelops the storm-ridden island like a shroud.

It all seems terribly familiar, but in the hands of the thriller-untested Scorsese, it is often a wonder to behold.

Based on Dennis Lehane's 2004 novel, Martin Scorsese's entry into psycho-thriller noir is one of those pieces that rewards the devoted, and serves as an engrossing study of both the psychological and atmospheric. And a lot of this is due to both the film legend's treatment of Laeta Kalogridis' labyrinthine script, as well as an often gut-tightening performance by DiCaprio. From the moment we are introduced to our protagonist, we are quickly aware of the baggage he brings to this case, as well as his lack of understanding of a burgeoning new era of care for those whom the world hath considered monsters. His tortured past concerning his lost love (Played by Michelle Williams), and haunting memories of liberating Dacchau in late WWII give us the portent that not all is well within this man, not unlike the near typhoon-like winds closing in on the island. And the last thing on his mind, is how the poor souls on this rock could have any future beyond this existence. It's a remarkable feat that DiCaprio achieves, and it doesn't come without amazing support by Ruffalo, Kingsley, Williams, Max Von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Ted Levine, Jackie Earl Haley(in another scene that proves Rorschach was the best thing in Snyder's WATCHMEN), and more. It's an at times breathtaking play on noir film cliches, and yet it becomes a newly formed creature of its own.

The foreboding atmosphere practically creeps off of the frame, as if the viewer itself is meant to take in the clues, reassess them, and perhaps even question their own findings. It's something that Polanski's made a career out of, and it certainly feels as if Scorsese is having a great deal of fun playing with an entirely new palette of colors. Everything from the darkened skies, to the beautifully dank remnants of the once Civil War compound, we are in an alien space, where nothing, and noone is to be trusted.

More than a mere paen to thrillers of the past, Scorsese plays up the clockworks of the script in a manner that applies modern technical sleight of hand that wouldn't have passed in the heyday of the noir thriller. Keeping the viewer as unbalanced as Teddy & Chuck is the goal, and Shutter Island goes so far as to play with our sense of what we saw versus what could really be happening. It also features some of the most inventively cinematic moments I've had the luck to see in a theatrical release in quite some time. Part LSD-laced Hitchcock, part dichotomy exploration, the film isn't above taking expectations and shredding them with the confidence of a master.

Also punctuating the ever deepening mysteries is the stunning soundtrack, arranged by the always reliable Robbie Robertson who uses found minimalist compositions to haunting effect. From aping Kubrick's use of Penderecki, and Ligeti, and even delving into Morton Feldman, the sounds of the film offer a more than fitting mental landscape. Perfectly dreamlike in every respect, the choices made here are an essential part of the story, further inviting viewers to become emeshed in the minds of our leads.Stay through the credits for further proof of this film's aural prowess.

And yet there are definitely some places where all this style comes up short. There are several speedbumps along the path that prevent the film from delivering what could have been a staggering emotional gut punch. Now whether this was due to the script tipping its hand a little too early, or if it was the editing choices. But it stands to reason that the viewer is given enough clues early on to see what kind of story they are being told. And in this world of Shymalan-weariness, it becomes pretty clear by the first hour where all of this is going. And even as the revelations drop from the sky in satellite-precise landings courtesy of Kalogridis' scripting magic, we are essentially relying on DiCaprio's performance to make up for what isn't happening elsewhere on screen. A missed opportunity in what plays mostly like a terrific greatest hits collection.

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