Saturday, April 3, 2010

Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese has made so many masterpieces that his name now carries overwhelming expectations. Shutter Island isn’t just a picture; it’s a Martin Scorsese picture. Fans of Scorsese’s gritty art house films may not warm to his having “stooped” so low as to do a common thriller, but c’mon; having already given the world Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, the man can do whatever he wants. Shutter Island isn’t a masterpiece, nor is it even great, but is what it set out to be: a richly atmospheric, entertaining thriller.

Leonardo DiCaprio (who has replaced Bobby De Niro as Scorsese’s “put him in every film” actor) plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshal called to investigate a situation at the Ashecliffe Mental Hospital on Shutter Island. One of the hospital’s most dangerous patients, Rachel Solando, has mysteriously gone missing from her ultra-secure cell. Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), the head of the hospital, says, “It’s as though she evaporated straight through the walls.” Teddy struggles to piece together the mystery, all the while fearing that the hospital may be keeping some very dark, inhumane secrets.

I commend the marketing department for Shutter Island; I had seen all the trailers going in, but the story wasn’t at all what I expected. The plot kept me guessing, so much so that even after the ultimate revelation towards the film’s end, I suspected that there might still be one last twist. Shutter Island depends on its surprises, and once all of the pieces are finally in place, the result is satisfactory. The Sixth Sense stands as the grand example of an already great film made greater by its final twist, but Shutter Island relies more heavily on its secrets. I enjoyed the majority of the experience, but throughout I was banking on the film’s last act and would have been sorely disappointed if it hadn’t delivered.

The eerie suspense-genre setting is almost too thick. Overbearing music, foggy coastlines, driving rain, creepy mental patients ... it all works, but Scorsese turns up the dial a bit too high at times. As it turns out, the overstated sense of dread has a purpose as the film’s final act makes the dense atmosphere more fitting and relevant, but the heavy-handed descent into creepiness is off-putting at first.

Despite a few moments of graphic violence, Shutter Island is far more of a thriller than a horror movie. It’s not out to scare you so much as intrigue you - to put you in Teddy’s shoes and make you wonder just what the heck is going on. I haven’t read Dennis Lehane’s original novel, though I would guess that the tone and pacing are more even than in the film. Having seen the film version and thought on it for while, I think Shutter Island would be a more rewarding experience the second time around. I suspect it would feel much more cohesive with all the pieces in place from the start.

Shutter Island won’t be remembered as one of Scorsese’s best, but that’s OK. It’s a thought-provoking thriller with strong atmosphere, rewarding plot twists, and good performances. Martin Scorsese has directed a solid string of masterpieces over the last ten years, so good for him for taking a break and delivering some good old-fashioned, spooky fun. If you’re still upset that he strayed from his normal territory, take another look at his filmography; you’ll find that he’s earned it.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for disturbing violent content, language, and some nudity.

Children would be frightened and with good reason; Shutter Island contains plenty of creepy stuff. For teenagers, it depends. I reiterate that Shutter Island isn’t a horror film, though there are a few moments of graphic, bloody violence, so I would recommend caution to all those bothered by scary/violent imagery.

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