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Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island Reviewed
Terry Staunton , March 11th, 2010 03:49

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Martin Scorsese has long had a habit of switching cinematic lanes in the wake of blanket acclaim from critics and his peers. The brooding menace of Taxi Driver was immediately followed by the underwhelming faux musical New York New York, the pugilistic urban opera Raging Bull gave way to the low-key study of stalkers The King Of Comedy, and the gangster saga grandeur of Goodfellas appears in his filmography just before the over-stylised and ultimately hollow Hitchcockian thrills of Cape Fear.

Now, having belatedly landed the Best Director Oscar for 2006's The Departed, Scorsese is back with another genre-based quickie. On the surface, Shutter Island could feasibly have landed in fleapits at any point over the last 70 years, its themes and execution naggingly familiar throughout its 138 minutes running time. It's 1954, and US marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is despatched to a remote island mental asylum off the coast of Boston to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a female inmate from a locked and barred “cell”.

So far, so standard film noir. Upon his arrival, however, Teddy's job is hampered by wily European psychiatrists (Ben Kingsley, Max von Sidow) and taciturn wardens (Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch), not to mention a looming storm that threatens to cut the island off from the mainland. This is where the film takes several head-spinning turns away from the more instantly recognisable motifs of the Hollywood thriller; Scorsese gleefully piles on layers of Edgar Allen Poe spookiness, the psychological darkness of producer Val Lewton's 1940s horrors (Cat People, Isle Of The Dead) and a smidgen of vintage Hammer – albeit with the “ham” sliced considerably thinner.

As Teddy unravels a knotted ball of suspected torture and morally dubious mind experimentation, he becomes increasingly troubled by visions of his GI past during the liberation of Dachau and brightly-lit apparitions of his own dead wife. Is he himself being drugged and “studied” by the sinister medical staff? Can he really trust his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo)? And what's the meaning of the cryptic note (“the law of 4 who is 67”) found in the missing patient's room?

Of all the films on Scorsese's CV, the most obvious parallel is the pulp noir of Cape Fear, all steely blue filters, slanty camera angles and dizzying zooms, although Shutter Island is clearly more substantial than a lurid remake of a 1960s potboiler. In common with two other recent big screen adaptations of Dennis Lehane novels (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone), the “action” of the central plot line is brilliantly paced and delivered by a top-notch cast, while the complexities of the leading characters' back stories are teasingly weaved into the narrative.

It's clearly the work of a seasoned and intelligent filmmaker, and one can't help but wonder if David Fincher, who was originally attached to the project, would have so confidently negotiated the story's labyrinthine questions of identity and moral ambiguity without recourse to the short-cut parlour tricks he employed on The Game and Fight Club. But Scorsese's hand is so steady and assured that it allows him to have fun with the form, offering several tableaux that resemble frames in an outlandish graphic novel, while musical director Robbie Robertson punctuates the drama with ominous strings that recall Bernard Herrmann.

The asylum itself, the deceptively cosily-named Ashecliffe, towers over the players with suitable creepiness, surrounded by a restless sea that exacerbates the viewer's sense of claustrophobia. But no matter how much the visual landscape of the film might prepare us for the shocks and jolts to come, they're still delivered with an immediacy and precision that will have you clawing at your popcorn bucket.

DiCaprio appears in every scene of the movie, his character a necessary fulcrum to all that follows, but that's not to suggest his dazzling star power blinds us to the great work of the supporting players. Kingsley brings a measured restraint to his role as the coldly detached chief shrink Dr Cawley, thankfully free of the cliched moustache-twirling of the typical villainous Brit in a Hollywood film, and Michelle Williams is an eery presence as Teddy's ghostly wife, gliding into a view like a blood-spattered siren luring the marshal into fresh terror at every turn.

The ever-dependable Patricia Clarkson makes the most of her one scene, which we won't examine in any greater detail here for fear of revealing too much plot, and Ted Levine's almost as brief turn as the unnamed head warden can chill with just the raising of an eyebrow. Pick of the bunch, though, is Ruffalo's laconic fellow lawman, an unfussy performance by an actor of formidable subtlety. In a role which, initially at least, provides a non-judgmental sounding board to Teddy's growing frustrations and suspicions, Ruffalo manages to drip-feed the viewer a series of signals and clues to the island's true heart of darkness.

And what of Leo himself? Reaching UK screens just a week after Tim Burton's sixth collaboration with his onscreen alter-ego Johnny Depp, Shutter Island marks the fourth pairing of the 21st century's other high-profile A-list partnership. But whereas Burton and Deep seem content to riff their way through variations on a fantasical but familiar theme of chocolate box gaudiness, Scorsese and DiCaprio appear determined to stretch both themselves and their audience.

Gangs Of New York, though flawed, was a fine illustration of Marty's talents as a social historian and helped his star shake off the celeb mag vacuousness that threatend to engulf him after Titanic. The Aviator was a misfire, Leo unable to capture the ruthlessness and arrogance Tommy Lee Jones brought to his portrayal of Howard Hughes in a 1977 made-for-TV movie, but The Departed saw them hit their stride with an emotionally-charged intensity that burned through the screen.

Shutter Island finds DiCaprio stepping up to another level, utterly convincing as a complicated and driven man raging at not just the world around him, but his own shortcomings. To date, Scorsese has made eight films with Robert De Niro, and while the leading man of his last four outings may never enjoy the level of serious critical acclaim afforded to Bobby, it's clear that Leo is learning more about his craft every time his master's voice calls for the cameras to roll.

G
Mar 11, 2010 5:33pm

Splendid review...I can't wait to catch it at the weekend. Couldn't agree more about Mark Ruffalo. Hope he goes on to further acclaim...a fine actor with such a strong yet subtle presence on screen. He was fantastic in 'Collateral'. He just needs to go easy on the rom-coms.

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LRH
Mar 11, 2010 6:25pm

Quite hard on Cape Fear and Fight Club which I think are both good films that don't deserve the criticism.
Also making mention of Tim Burton who seems to be the man to criticize at the moment, again I think a little unfairly.

I find DiCaprio quite an irritating watch, I'm not sure why.
I was also one of the few people who really dislike Gangs of New York.

I was quite looking forward to Shutter Island although the more I see/here about it the less I want to see it.
Something about the little bit of CGI in the trailer doesn't sit right.
Good review though despite what I've said, makes it sound interesting again.

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5onthe5
Mar 13, 2010 11:07am

I'm not the biggest Leo fan either - he never really disappears into his roles for me. Which isn't necessarily what you want from your big stars anyway, but he's not easy to watch for some reason.

I could make the same criticism of Brad Pitt, and Leo is surely the greater actor out of the two, but for some reason I find Brad Pitt much more watchable and likeable on screen.

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Nick W
Mar 31, 2010 6:45pm

DiCaprio still looks like a kid to me and because of this he lacks a certain depth in my eyes - this may be pure prejudice and it may take another decade of ageing for him before i can shake it. Having said that Shutter Island is worth watching and it's certainly a cut above most of the garbage on show at my local multiplex.

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