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Entries in Shutter Island [2010] (1)

Sunday
Feb212010

Shutter Island, 2010

It's Exactly What You Think

Martin Scorsese should be very proud. His latest film, Shutter Island, is the best psychological thriller or 1995.

That’s not a typo, and this isn’t necessarily a negative review. The movie, while at times creepy, well acted, and fun to watch, feels like it came out fifteen years too late. In the post-Usual Suspects, post-Sixth Sense age, a great “twist” ending has to be spectacular, and not something that is all but given away in the trailer. I prayed going into this movie that I would be wrong, and that Scorsese had only pretended to telegraph Shutter Island’s big mystery in the previews; sadly, I could have guessed (in fact, did) all of the movie’s “secrets” before the title card appeared on-screen

But maybe I’m suffering from a case of “having seen too many movies”. I get that a lot. I’ve recently begun asking those who say that to me whether or not they would ever accuse someone of having read too many books. Digression aside, I’d like for you to play a game with me. Please read the synopsis below and see if you can figure out the big Shutter Island surprise.

The year is 1954. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a federal marshal from Boston whos’ called out to a remote mental asylum to investigate the disappearance of a patient. A former soldier who helped liberate Dachau, Teddy has constant flashbacks to the war; he also hallucinates a great deal, seeing visions of his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), who burned to death in an apartment fire a few years earlier.

He also has a new partner on the assignment, named Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), whose main job is to take notes and eye Teddy suspiciously. The two men interview the staff and the head of the hospital, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley, who has, thankfully, taken up acting again), but no one will say anything about the missing patient or the mysterious note she left—which alludes to there being one more patient on the island than has been officially recorded.

If you’re like me, what’s going through your mind right now is similar to what I thought after having watched this premise be established in the trailer: “No way. There has to be more to it than that, right? I mean, they’ve just told me that Teddy is a patient at the hospital having delusions of being a detective!” Well, there’s a little more to it than that, but the film’s twisty-er story points are just nuances of the inevitable. So if you’re looking for a brain-bender, stay off this island.

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot to recommend here. As I said before, the actors are almost uniformly top-notch. Because we’re dealing with Martin Scorsese, we know the movie will be filled with great faces and better performances. DiCaprio fares better with his Boston accent than Mel Gibson in the recent Edge of Darkness; and his gradual unraveling is fun to behold, if a tad melodramatic in parts. Mark Ruffalo is great as Chuck. He injects this non-role with a quiet, everyman quality that balances DiCaprio’s manic eyes and hands. But the best roles in Shutter Island are those of the supporting cast. Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer, and Robin Bartlett make this movie believable—possible, even. They play the wardens and the nutcases; in a movie like this, truly unnerving characters can keep the madhouse from simply being a funhouse.

The one exception in the cast is Michelle Williams, who plays her scenes as an off-her-meds Alice Kramden, by way of Cliff Clavin from Cheers. Seriously, she was better on Dawson’s Creek.

Shutter Island has a lot going for it visually, too, but—and this is the strange part—the movie is undermined by Scorsese’s poor choice of visual technique. Teddy’s visions and memories of the concentration camp are poetic short stories that we glimpse and piece together as the “A” story progresses. These aren’t typical movie flashbacks; they’re kaleidoscopic nightmares filtered through regret and suppressed rage. However, they’re undermined by Scorsese’s puzzling over-use of green-screen in just about every other scene. I still can’t figure out what the director was going for; even in scenes where two characters are talking against a nondescript wall, the edges around their shoulders and heads show the slight fuzziness of a mediocre composite job. While images of piled bodies and reanimating corpses are suitably chilling, I was most upset by the fact that most of Shutter Island looks like it was filmed in a parking lot.

This problem almost ruins the film’s atmosphere, but not nearly as much as the music does. The instrumentals of the opening ten minutes build and build, climaxing in a hammer-in-the-face barrage of ominous noise as Teddy and Chuck walk through the gates of the asylum. This is the most egregious instance, but there are several other moments where the music over-sells moments that would have been more effective with no accompaniment. Nearly every emotion and story beat in Shutter Island is spelled out before anything significant happens, and it’s an insulting distraction.

On a related note, it is quite funny that the “big twist” is literally spelled out for the audience on a whiteboard. Teddy comes unglued and bursts into Dr. Cawley’s office with a shotgun, convinced he’s uncovered a huge government conspiracy; Cawley reveals that Teddy is suffering from delusions brought on by severe mental trauma (I won’t give those specifics away), and the proof is in a pair of names that are anagrams for two other names. I won’t spoil those, either, but the surprise won’t be too startling to anyone who thought, “Hmm, that character’s got a weird name; I wonder if it’ll mean anything later on?”

Shutter Island is ultimately a noble failure. It kept me going for a good chunk of the running time (about 45 minutes could have been excised from the middle), hopeful that my initial theory would be proven wrong. I’ll never watch it again, and for me that’s not the mark of a good film. I think it’s a tremendous waste of talent, time, and money. Had Scorsese gone a step further and shown Teddy not to be crazy, to have been, in fact, the victim of the conspiracy instead of the fabricator of it, this movie may have been closer to something special. As it stands, the movie’s greatest shocking twist is that there isn’t one.