Monday, June 14, 2010
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Max Von Syndow, Jackie Earle Haley, John Carroll Lynch, Elias Koteas, Patricia Clarkson
Running Time: 137 min.
MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
If nothing else, Martin Scorsese's much anticipated and long delayed Shutter Island makes a great case for how important it is for a film to finish strong. Unfortunately, that finish was partially spoiled for me beforehand so there's little way of knowing my reaction had I been left completely in the dark. As far as big twists go, this one won't be accused of being terribly original but what's impressive about it is how Scorsese bothers to stick around and explore every facet of it after the reveal. You'd figure an approach like that would result in an anti-climactic fiasco not seen since the psychologist's silly speech at the end of Psycho, but instead, the explanations make the film look better in hindsight and imply that maybe there was more to the story than just a "gotcha" ending. The movie itself almost seems interested in how it arrived there, and as a result, so was I.
Of course, the running joke since the its release early this year was that Scorsese's "slumming it" with a cheesy thriller. He is, but faint praise as this may be, it's no worse than some of the lesser entries in his catalog like Bringing Out the Dead, The Aviator and Gangs of New York and it's definitely a lot more fun. And it's probably the only thing he's directed that's my kind of movie, as even his best films seem to invoke respectful admiration from me and nothing more. So as someone who doesn't hold his work on the gold pedestal everyone else does, my expectations were fully met, even if I'm unsure my reaction would be the same after another viewing.
At its center is an investigation taking place in 1954 that brings Federal marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) to Ashcliffe Hospital, an asylum for the criminally insane located on the mysterious Shutter Island. They're looking into the disappearance of prisoner/patient Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), a woman institutionalized for drowning her three children, but instead Teddy suspects he's accidentally unearthed a massive conspiracy involving mind control orchestrated by the hospital's chief psychiatrist, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley). As Teddy's tormented by hallucinatory flashbacks of his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams) who died in a tragic fire a few years earlier, escaping the island with his mind intact soon takes precedence over cracking the Solando case. And it's a good thing it does because the investigation itself isn't interesting aside from the memorably bizarre supporting performances that include Max Von Syndow as a crazed evil doctor, John Carrol Lynch as the Deputy Warden, an unrecognizable Elias Koteas as the man Teddy believes killed his wife and could be locked up in the dangerous "Ward C," and Jackie Earle Haley, who's most impressive of all as the deranged patient harboring important information. Patricia Clarkson (whose pivotal role can't really be discussed) tears it up in a scene at the midway point that re-energizes the story, taking it in an entirely new direction. It's only when Teddy and Chuck attempt to escape the island that everything picks up and its non-stop tension until the finale.
At the risk of possibly giving away too much it is worth examining the nature of this big twist, which bares more than a passing similarity to the one that closed my favorite thriller, 1997's The Game, (fittingly that film's director, David Fincher, was originally attached to this project). It goes without saying this suffers in comparison, as anything would. With nearly identical motivations, this twist calls into question the nature of everything that came before and has you re-think the story's purpose, with the key difference being that The Game was grounded in reality. Whereas that film earned its final catharsis through a carefully constructed series of events, here we have certain things occurring only inside the protagonist's head, others really happening and it's difficult to draw the line between what's real and what isn't. So when the big reveal comes the only thing lacking is genuine emotion because we don't trust it. The script (based on Dennis Lehane's 2003 novel) isn't cheating, but it isn't exactly playing totally fair either. The strength it does share with that film is its willingness to stick around after the reveal to truly explore its ramifications, right up until literally the final line of dialogue.
The exciting and skillful last third of the picture is filled to the rim with disturbing images and it's mostly here where it becomes apparent Scorsese is the director, not some hack trying to make a schlocky potboiler (even if this does still kind of qualify as that). DiCaprio is solid, if unspectacular, until this portion of the film where he has to go all out emotionally and you gain a greater appreciation for what he was going for earlier in the procedural scenes. While I can't say I jumped with anticipation at the prospect of a fourth collaboration between Scorsese and DiCaprio, or they necessarily bring out the absolute best in one another each time out, their partnership is always creatively solid and interesting. No exception here. The dependable Ruffalo delivers as always while Kingsley admirably performs the difficult task of having to explain some pretty insane stuff late in the picture.
I've heard many say the film needs a few viewings to be fully absorbed and appreciated, but I'm conflicted whether it's even that deep. On one hand, I can easily see the film aging well with the twist holding the story up for further interpretation, but it's equally possible this could end up being the kind of routine thriller that exits your mind a week after you've seen it, never to be considered again. I'm still debating which. Anyone claiming Scorsese sold out by making a mainstream genre picture would be just as off base as loyalists claiming it's some kind of overlooked masterpiece because his name hovers above the credits. But when judged exactly for what it is, it's tough to argue that Shutter Island isn't skillfully made and a lot of fun.