Monday, March 01, 2010

Shutter Island / ***½ (R)

Edward Daniels: Leonardo DiCaprio
Chuck Aule: Mark Ruffalo
Dr. Cawley: Ben Kingsley
Dr. Naehring: Max Von Sydow
Delores: Michelle Williams
Rachel: Emily Mortimer
Dr. Solando: Patricia Clarkson
George Noyce: Jackie Earle Haley
Warden: Ted Levine
Deputy Warden MacPherson: John Carroll Lynch
Laeddis: Elias Koteas

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Laeta Kalogridis. Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. Running time: 138 min. Rated R (for disturbing violent content, language and some nudity).

I’ve never referred to the production photos I use in my posts before, but I want you to look at the face of Leonardo DiCaprio in this picture. Look at his eyes; at the bubbling tension beneath his skin, at the naked energy he is putting out there in this photo. This is not your average modern actor. DiCaprio is more like the acting legends of American cinema from before the time the French New Wave affected the attitudes of all American actors into some thing more natural and understated. DiCaprio is more like a young Marlon Brando, a brash James Stewart, or a raw Henry Fonda. He is a classic film star.

This makes him perfect for Martin Scorsese’s new thriller “Shutter Island”, a classic thriller if Hollywood ever saw one. It’s a shame he didn’t choose to shoot this in the black and white of its 1954 setting. From the first dramatic chords of the soundtrack—not a traditional score, but rather found tracks compiled by a longtime friend of Scorsese, Robbie Robertson of The Band fame—you know that this will not be your typical quick cut, jump and shock thriller. The overblown chords of Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Symphony #3” evoke the thundering scores of the late Bernard Herrmann and make it clear that nothing is as it seems in this story.

DiCaprio plays Federal Marshall Teddy Daniels, assigned to a hospital prison for the criminally insane, Boston’s Shutter Island Ashecliffe Hospital, to apprehend an escaped patient who “evaporated straight through the walls.” His attentive new partner Chuck Aule is well handled by Mark Ruffalo (“The Brothers Bloom”). As would be expected in any thriller, the hospital’s head of psychiatry, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley, “The Wackness”), is less than forthcoming with some important information concerning the patient’s escape and the hospital’s practices. The chief of medicine, Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sydow, “Minority Report”), offers ominous suggestions as an aging man of German descent, the perfect age for a Nazi that might have used Jews for medical experimentation.

It isn’t long before the marshals and the audience begin to think the two men will never leave the island. To reveal any more of the film’s plot would be a crime against it. However, one of my few problems with the movie is that its ending is fairly inevitable. But even if you’ve seen enough plots set inside an insane asylum to know where it’s going, it’s the film’s luscious journey to get there that makes it enjoyable.

Scorsese’s production is luscious to say the least. The island setting is just the type of improbable trap setting that fueled many classic Hollywood thrillers. He explores every inch of this island, never limiting his locations by its setting. There are the lavish rooms of the hospital’s administrative facilities, the cold institution of the main hospital, the dungeons of the old civil war fort that houses the most dangerous inmates, the island’s many abandoned structures, the old hospital cemetery, the treacherous cliffs out of some sort of Hitchcockian crisis of conscience story, and the secretive lighthouse. Scorsese combines the gothic with both the institution of the hospital and the nature of the island wonderfully. Much of the film takes place during a nor’easter that is much more satisfactorily depicted than the stage-confined hurricane sequence of his “Cape Fear” remake.

Perhaps the most vivid sequences of the movie are Daniels’s dreams/flashbacks. He dreams and flashes on memories from two moments in his life. He remembers being part of the liberation of the concentration camp in Dachau. These play like typical movie flashbacks. The setting is gloomy and dark; the images are slow in order to depict every detail. There are frightening images he keeps returning to, including the blood of a German officer who botched a suicide and the bodies of a mother and daughter frozen in the cold German winter.

His dreams are focused on his wife Dolores (Michelle Williams, “Brokeback Mountain”), who died in a tragic accident a couple years earlier. These dreams are rich with color; the suggestion of a happier life Daniels will never have the chance to know. The dreams are also shrouded in the task he must fulfill on the island. Despite his struggle to hold onto the life he never lived with his wife, the madness and darkness of Shutter Island pushes its way in, and the dreams begin to speak to him and guide him in his investigation. But what do his memories of the war and of his wife have to do with what is happening at the hospital? Is Dolores really speaking to Teddy from the afterlife?

In the final moments of “Shutter Island” Daniels poses a question, “Which would be worse, to live as a monster, or die a good man?” Perhaps Scorsese is using Daniels to speak for the cinema of thrillers in general. So many of today’s suspense and horror directors are more interested in the monster, the shock, the gore. Gone are the truly cinematic aspects of the thriller such as atmosphere, character, and pacing. “Shutter Island” is Scorsese’s tribute to the classic thriller; and like the classic thriller, it is not the end result of the thrill that Scorsese is interested in embarking on with his audience, but the journey to get there.

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