Mark Reviews Movies


3  Stars (out of 4)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams, John Carroll Lynch, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine, Elias Koteas 

MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent content, language and some nudity)

Running Time: 2:18

Release Date: 2/19/10

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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 18, 2010

Shutter Island depends entirely on two key scenes of exposition. The first is safer to talk about, because it's what the film appears to be. The second, like all mysteries, comes during the climax, where people explain what the story actually is, and as such, it's best to avoid discussion of it all together, except maybe a vague assessment of how and why it works.

Typically, the key element of mysteries like this is an attention to plotting; the who and what of the who-done-what and the unraveling of the puzzle are the driving force of the narrative. Here, though, the mystery that screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis (adapting a novel by Dennis Lehane and quite well from what I've heard from those who've read the book) establishes in the first setup is resolved about halfway through.

The film, then, is decidedly not about the mystery on its face, and that's its strength. Director Martin Scorsese knows this fact, and his strength is to focus on what's left: Who is piecing together the puzzle, and what the riddle means to him.

Scorsese, for all his prowess with camera motion and editing trickery to catch us off-guard in moments that should just flow together (notice how he, again, cuts off music in mid-melody as a new scene starts), is very much a director who understands how to use the medium to first and foremost tell a story, examine character, and very precisely create a world in which both live.

The world of Shutter Island is a humdinger, an asylum for the criminally insane set on a remote island. The asylum is built around an old Civil War fort, and it is surrounded by jagged, rocky cliffs. Oh, and by the way, a big storm is a-brewing. As US Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) approach the asylum after coming off the ferry (the only way on and off the island, naturally), horns blare on the soundtrack. We don't need them to realize something is terribly amiss here, but they don't hurt either. So loud and so constant are these horns that we can hardly begin to catch our bearings in a series of aerial shots meant for us to orient ourselves to the island and its layout.

The lesson from these opening scenes is to never get used to Shutter Island as a locale, because each new setting within it seems as foreign as the one that proceeds it.

We travel from the clinically sterile setting of the main wards to the ornately decorated mansion of lead psychiatrists (led by Ben Kingsley's Dr. Crawley. The ward for the island's most dangerous patients is inside the old fort, which is all stone walls, metal fencing, and so much gloomy darkness. Soon, the camera lingers precariously over those cliffs but not before traversing the forest where a hurricane begins to blow down the trees. There's a lighthouse, too, featuring one of cinema's most enduring images, that of a spiral staircase.

The film's settings become more and more exotic and Gothic as it strays from the central mystery. A patient has gone missing on the island. She is no longer in her cell, and there are no signs of escape.

Usual procedural elements follow. The Marshals search the patient's room and discover a cryptic note. Daniels questions patients. The interrogation scenes are intriguing, not because of the information the witnesses reveal, but because of how they affect Daniels. Take the scene in which he talks to one patient who begins to endorse eugenics, and watch how Daniels, a World War II veteran who first entered Dachau, reacts. He takes the rest of his time with the patient striking a nerve by rubbing his pencil into his notepad, slowly infuriating the patient.

Once we've received our crash course in the plot, Kalogridis and Scorsese concentrate more on Daniels' trauma, a word which Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) informs Daniels loosely becomes "dream" in German and comes from the Greek for "wound". We're basically talking Jung vs. Freud, or as Crawley tells Daniels that psychiatry is at war between healing through therapy and correcting through surgery. Crawley believes there is room for growth, whereas Naehring is convinced of the practice of lobotomy.

The final part of the narrative's structure in the form of Daniels' dreams. His wife (Michelle Williams) is dead, the victim of a firebug who once was a patient at Shutter Island but has disappeared from the records. He dreams of speaking to her in their old apartment, ashes falling around them like snowflakes, water pouring from her slowly burning body, and flames erupting before she crumbles to ashes. His experience at the concentration camp begins to bleed with his dream of her, as well as his thoughts on the missing patient, who is incarcerated for drowning her three children.

These are haunting sequences, building an unconscious portrait of Daniels, and are as important to the film's ultimate success as the missing patient's insistence on an unregistered 67th patient at the asylum.

Scorsese weaves each of these narratives into an atmospheric whole, where the mystery presented at the asylum is merely the lure into a study of Daniels. His dreams and reality begin to meld, and as another patient (Jackie Earle Haley, one of many fine character actors here to intensify the mood (including Ted Levine as the warden, John Carroll Lynch as Daniels' guide to the asylum, Elias Koteas as the arsonist, and Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson as two sides of the same coin)) puts it to him, he has a choice: Uncover the truth or find the man responsible for his wife's death.

Which leads us to the second bit of exposition. The most I will say of the revelation of the riddle of Shutter Island is that it doesn't cheat the film's setup (others may argue differently), it solidifies the film's emotional core (DiCaprio's intense performance is a key component to that as well), and it sheds a fascinating new light on what has come before. The final scene of this moody, totally involving thriller is slightly ambiguous. It goes back to Daniels' choice, although I read that he is conscious of making a choice.

Copyright 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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