Shutter Island – Film Review

Posted on 19. Feb, 2010 by in Film/TV

by Todd Gilchrist

Martin Scorsese is the filmmaker who maybe more than any in the medium’s history brought cinephilia to the mainstream, and it’s this enormous legacy of inspiration, influence, and cinematic subtext that he has embedded in his body of work which makes Shutter Island so hard to talk about. Superficially about a U.S. Marshal investigating the disappearance of an inmate at a high-security mental facility, Scorsese’s latest allows him to check off another genre on his list of conquests – a proper mystery, not to mention by way of film noir. But as always, the director integrates more themes, ideas and points of reference into his films than most moviegoers will ever be aware of, and this one seems particularly rich with the subtext of many, many other movies and moviemakers.

Martin Scorsese directs Ben Kingsley, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffala in Shutter Island

The reason for this, it seems, may have something to do with the fact that Scorsese crossed the last measurable threshold in an already distinguished career four years ago when he won an Oscar for Best Director for The Departed. As good as were the two films he made before that, Gangs of New York and The Aviator, they also seemed primarily (if not expressly) designed to win awards, and as a result felt more constricted and mathematical. In which case, Shutter Island feels like a return to form for Scorsese the unapologetic visionary, full of affection and grandiosity as a byproduct of passion, not awards prognostication; it’s a film of vast creativity and intelligence, and most of all, complete freedom, and it triumphs because it reminds audiences what these kinds of movies were, specifically by fully celebrating the possibilities of what they can become.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Michelle Williams in Shutter Island

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshal assigned to investigate the disappearance of a female patient named Rachel (Emily Mortimer) at a maximum-security facility for the criminally insane. With his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) in tow, Teddy interviews inmates and parses through the meager details given to him by Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), soon uncovering greater mysteries to solve than Rachel’s wherabouts. As a raging storm descends upon Shutter Island, Cawley and his colleagues persist with their seeming deception, and Daniels finds himself on the run and forced to take dramatic steps to uncover the secrets of Shutter Island, eventually realizing that the cost of learning the truth may be his very sanity.

Devoting more than a paragraph to the film’s plot would do a disservice to its many surprises, but suffice it to say that Scorsese is not content to merely pay homage to the movies that mystified him as a kid. Shutter Island’s surface story is quickly shattered not only by Daniels’ descriptions of his past, but a series of dreams and flashbacks that show Scorsese at his most inventive: the lawman finds himself engaged in conversations with his deceased wife, and relives her death in ways both literal and metaphorical via set pieces that surpass the substantive layers (much less the spectacle) of so-called dream logic. Further, the Jacob’s Ladder of truths, revelations, and realities carries actual emotional weight: As one discovery gives way to another, Daniels’ own self-reflection becomes more intimate, engaging, and powerful because our own beliefs and theories are challenged along with his.

DiCaprio continues to prove himself an intense and sophisticated actor, and his turn as Daniels further enhances his own, growing legend; there’s a desperation, an anger in his eyes that seems unquenchable, and it conveys the character’s indefatigable determination before he speaks a word, or maybe more accurately, asks a question. Ruffalo, meanwhile, exudes the same low-key authenticity he demonstrated in David Fincher’s Zodiac, successfully exorcising memories of the actor’s days of indentured servitude on the rom-com circuit. And Kingsley similarly repairs years of lackluster efforts in films undeserving of his time and talent playing Cawley as a perfect balance of benevolence and intimidation, earning the distruct of the audience without coming across as a moustache-twirling villain.

The rest of the performers all seem equally jazzed in their roles; perhaps they were invigorated by the prospect of working with a director who feels liberated from the responsibility of more conventional mainstream respectability. As Daniels’ confidante and long-suffering wife Dolores, Michelle Williams immediately seems to lead his common sense astray even as she engenders sympathy from the audience; Max Von Sydow, on the other hand, communicates simplicity and honesty even when his relentless diagnoses are their most incisive or suspicious. In fact, there isn’t a bad performance in the film, and Scorsese gives each contributor at least one scene to flex his or her own muscles and bring their part of the puzzle to life, creating a dazzling tapestry of stories where there can only be one actual truth.

As passionate as Scorsese obviously is about his subject matter, Shutter Island feels like a lesser work in his filmography – a Cape Fear or After Hours - style excursion that satisfies his own personal interests, foregoes perceived or actual artistic significance, and wanders around in a world he hasn’t yet examined or explored. But in that sense, the film connects him more strongly to the forebears who first inspired him than any he’s made in the last decade, if not longer; the mainstream and genre filmmakers alike that thrilled Scorsese as an adolescent weren’t necessarily trying to create capital - A art, but did so anyway because of virtuoso execution and the complete integration of substantive influences and ideas into their potboiler plots and lurid landscapes.

Martin Scorsese directing Shutter Island

As such, his latest doesn’t seem destined to earn a place among top-tier Scorsese movies, but it does qualify as an essential work, because better than even his biggest triumphs, it demonstrates how craftsmanship can create art, which is an idea that the director has championed from his earliest days, whether he was aware of it or not. This is the Scorsese that made Boxcar Bertha and injected it with symbolism and visual poetry while satisfying Roger Corman’s pulpy, prurient demands at the same time. With Shutter Island, he’s put together a not only serviceable but superlative psychological thriller, loaded it with visual cues, conceptual references and personal flourishes, and foregone the prospect of making something important, ultimately succeeding in creating something genuinely significant instead.

Rating: star Shutter Island – Film Reviewstar Shutter Island – Film Reviewstar Shutter Island – Film Reviewstar Shutter Island – Film Reviewblankstar Shutter Island – Film Review 4 Stars out of 5

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3 Responses to “Shutter Island – Film Review”

  1. Todd

    19. Feb, 2010

    Going to see this film tonight. Will report back. Regardless if it matches up to Cape Fear, it will still be a head and shoulders above all the crap in the theaters right now.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Lynn Montgomery

    19. Feb, 2010

    Leonardo does it again with this movie. His acting is above average. Movie was great with many twists. Will keep you on your toes…

    Very enjoyable

    Reply to this comment

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