Shutter Island (2010)
By: Julian on February 23, 2010  |  Comments ()  |  Bookmark and Share
Poster Art
Credits
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams
Screenplay: Laeta Kalogridis
Country: USA
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Martin Scorsese is the greatest film director operating today. That's a pretty grand statement to make, but the man is without parallel and in terms of genre cinema he's been a mainstay since his second feature Boxcar Bertha for producer Roger Corman (on the strength of this violent road picture, John Cassavetes told Scorsese he "spent a year making a piece of shit"). Scorsese's first foray into horror was a remake of J Lee Thompson's adaptation of John MacDonald's novel The Executioners and the film Cape Fear was in more of a Hitchcockian vein than a Cormanite one, with a shrill score and atmosphere in spades.

Shutter Island (another adaptation of a novel, this time Dennis Lehane's 2003 book) is Scorsese's second Hitchcockesque horror effort. And what a movie it is. Putting aside any positive preconceptions I have about Scorsese (a difficult task indeed; the director is endearing and interesting in interviews and shows a genuine love and knowledge of the craft. And I promise you, dear reader, that is the last blast of man-crush affection you'll be required to endure this review.), this is a remarkable effort, the experience perhaps diminished by unnecessarily spoiler-y ad campaigns and disappointment elicited by a frustratingly indecisive release date.

If you've seen the aforesaid trailer, there's a good chance you'll know how Shutter Island ends and that ain't no way to enter a movie. For those who haven't, here's a spoiler-free few sentences on plot: the year is 1954, and Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a US marshal sent out with his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane on Shutter Island, in Boston harbour. The marshals have been despatched to investigate the disappearance of a patient from the hospital, a particularly nasty piece of work named Rachel Solondo, whose incarceration was a result of the triple homicide of her children.

I called Shutter Island Hitchcockian, and this is more with reference to Scorsese's style as a director of thriller films. His visual command is impressive and, like Hitch, Scorsese is well acquainted with the "less is more" maxim, keeping the narrative very character-focussed as we are treated to the intricacies of Teddy's psyche. Possibly inspired by his short Hitchcock homage The Key to Reserva (released between The Departed and Shine a Light), Marty's work on Shutter Island evokes the best of his cinematic idol. But it's the technical triage of composer, cinematographer and editor (in that order of impact) that lend Shutter Island its oomph: Robbie Robertson deals with the music and none of it is original – the Band frontman and frequent Scorsese collaborator assembles a pastiche of orchestral pieces that are terrifying and fit brilliantly.

Robert Richardson, who has worked with Scorsese since Casino and is one of the best cinematographers in the business, is responsible for the unrelentingly bleak landscape of Shutter Island and his camera is voyeuristic as it peers into cells, behind cliffs and upon lighthouses. What Richardson does so adeptly is make Ashecliffe a quasi-supernatural entity, personifying its creaks and moans in the same way Stanley Kubrick and John Alcott made The Shining's Overlook Hotel a villain unto itself. Also noteworthy is Richardson's work on the Dachau flashbacks, the DOP surely in his World War II groove fresh off lensing Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.

Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese's editor since 1980, deserves a Little Gold Man for her editing skills here (but although it has the cast and crew that big awards ceremonies like the Oscars enjoy, Shutter Island is too edgy to be an awards movie – but I'll be very happy to be proven wrong in a year's time). She works well within the conventions of the horror genre, delivering a remarkably (for its 138 minute duration) tight picture and some jump scares as effective as anything you've been seeing lately from the best genre outings.

The acting is terrific all-around. Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo are consistently good value, with the latter riffing on his role as Toschi in David Fincher's brilliant Zodiac. But it's Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow who really shine as the malevolent powers-that-be of Ashecliffe, the increasingly nasty duo of Drs. Cawley and Naehring. Michelle Williams doesn't do much as Teddy's love interest, but Jackie Earle Haley (perhaps practicing for his role as Freddy Krueger in the upcoming Elm Street remake) and Ted Levine are fun in their roles of asylum patient and warden respectively. Any apprehensions I may have had about Laeta Kalogridis handling the screenplay with the same hamfisted approach that earned her a Razzie nomination for her work on Alexander were dispelled in Shutter Island's opening scenes and Steven Knight (Eastern Promises) is occasionally referenced online as having worked on the script (before and after Shutter Island was a Wolfgang Petersen vehicle), but he is uncredited both in the film and on the IMDb.

At time of writing, Shutter Island has had considerable success at the box office, coming out on top in its opening weekend and hauling $41 million, a record for Scorsese and DiCaprio. But critical reception hasn't been as kind. Whether or not this has something to do with the film being a B-movie in hyper-blockbuster's clothing I'm not sure, but it's a bit of a mystery to me – Shutter Island is a wildly entertaining suspense thriller. Atmospheric, brilliantly performed and technically sublime; this is the sort of movie that reminds me why I love movies so much.
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