Thursday, March 11, 2010

Review - Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island is an A+ production, but this is still a B-Movie at heart. The film is set in 1954, and the picture's roots extend deep into the cinema of that era, particularly the dark, tortured, paranoid world of horror and noir. Keen-eyed film buffs will note the references to Sam Fuller, Alfred Hitchcock, Jacques Tourneur, Val Lewton and Powell & Pressburger among others, but Scorsese isn't held captive by his influences. He has made a film that pays homage while succeeding on its own merits as a gripping psychological thriller, a film in which he can simultaneously ape the studio style of that bygone age while pushing his own directorial aesthetic to the limit. The director has surrounded himself with a cast and crew that couldn't be bettered, and turned Dennis Lehane's novel into a gloriously cinematic experience.

That's not to say Shutter Island is without flaws, however, or to ignore the sense of disappointment that Scorsese is bringing his considerable talents to bear on a story that is, essentially, pure hokum; but there is an undeniable charge to be had in watching a master filmmaker displaying such a total command of his craft. Scorsese makes his intentions clear in the opening moments, with a loud crescendo of ominous music accompanying a ferry as it emerges from the thick fog. The vessel is heading towards Shutter Island, a remote location that houses a mental hospital for the criminally insane, and the dialogue uttered in this early sequence is delivered in portentous tones. "This ferry is the only way onto the island, or off," we are told, before we see the gothic building emerge in the distance and hear the grim warning, "There's a storm comin'." The two men bravely making this foray into such an unsettling environment are US Marshalls Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). They have been summoned to investigate the seemingly impossible disappearance of a woman (Emily Mortimer) from her cell, despite it being locked from the outside and guarded throughout the night. "It's as if she evaporated" head psychiatrist Dr Cawley (a superb Ben Kingsley) tells them, "right through the walls."

The mystery surrounding this missing patient is a mere red herring, though. Shutter Island quickly concerns itself more with the danger surrounding Daniels himself, as he starts to lose his grip on his fragile emotional and psychological state, and it grows into an exploration of the very nature of insanity. Traumatised by the death of his wife (Michelle Williams) and by the horrors he witnessed during the war (he was part of the troop that liberated Dachau; Scorsese finds some horrific and haunting images here), he comes under siege from memories, nightmares and delusions. It is in these sequences that Scorsese really starts to unleash his full visual arsenal. Daniels' encounters with his dead wife are filmed in stunningly vivid hues by master cinematographer Robert Richardson, and the director pulls off a number of striking touches; in one, Daniels tenderly holds Dolores as she turns to ash and crumbles in his arms. These delirious scenes are edited for maximum intensity by Thelma Schoonmaker, but as Shutter Island progresses, Scorsese allows the real and the imagined to bleed into one another, until we are as disorientated and desperate for the truth as Teddy is. Through Richardson's astonishing camerawork and Dante Ferretti's imposing production design, the whole movie – from the architecture to the tumultuous weather – becomes an expression of the central character's mental state.

As a result of this psychological torment, Leonardo DiCaprio is pushed to the edge in Shutter Island. In each of his collaborations with Scorsese, DiCaprio has become a stronger, braver actor, and he finds new depths in his performance here. Daniels' first words in the picture are, "Pull yourself together, Teddy", but following his own advice is no easy task, as the sinister events he finds himself embroiled in tear away at Teddy's tenuous grip on his own sanity. DiCaprio makes his character's gradual crack-up convincing and even emotionally affecting, while the large cast of characters surrounding Teddy toy with him mercilessly. What an extraordinary cast Scorsese has assembled here! As well as the marvellous actors I've already mentioned, Shutter Island features roles for Patricia Clarkson, Ted Levine, Jackie Earle Haley, Elias Koteas, John Carroll Lynch and Max von Sydow, and every performer is given at least one scene in which to shine. Acting honours are arguably stolen by DiCaprio, Kingsley and Clarkson, but it's perhaps unfair to spotlight individual achievements amid such a magnificent ensemble.

Shutter Island is a very strange and distinctive piece of work, particularly when considered against the average mainstream Hollywood thriller. Few features of this type are so bold and unconventional in their pacing and mise-en-scène, and the odd rhythms of the film allow Scorsese to develop a disturbing intensity. In truth, the film might have been even more intense with a tighter construction. Surely Scorsese of all people should know that the 50's genre pictures he's referencing never ran to 140 minutes (80-90 mins was more like the norm), and there is no real reason for Shutter Island to do so either. (I was surprised to discover recently that Scorsese hasn't directed a feature shorter than two hours since The Colour of Money, which just scrapes in at 119 minutes, and the delightfully brisk After Hours) The scale sometimes feels at odds with the schlocky, B-Movie twists, and the bloat makes itself felt in a slightly baggy midsection, but the film's occasional lags are offset by the visceral thrill of Scorsese's style. He has reached a stage in his career where he has nothing to prove to anybody but himself, and in Shutter Island, his filmmaking is at full throttle. It is an exhilarating ride.