Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Shutter Island (2010)

Look, I like DiCaprio. I think it's nice that Martin Scorcese took a chance on a guy who was still known as "that kid from Titanic" and single-handedly revived his career. Seriously though, someone needs to talk to Scorcese about his Leo addiction. At first it was great, there was a sudden rush of creativity and Scorcese started producing some of his finest work in years. Soon, however, it became apparent that his craft was taking a back seat to his next DiCaprio fix. DiCaprio as Frank Sinatra? Where will it end, Marty? Here he again makes the mistake of casting DiCaprio as a tough-talking cop, and although it's nice that he gives Leo a chance to dust off his The Departed accent, I still can't shake the feeling that he's a little kid playing dress-ups.

Anyway, here he's playing a U.S. Marshall named Teddy Daniels. Set in 1954 Massachussets, he and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) are sent to investigate a patient's disappearance from Ashcliffe mental institution, situated on the remote and inhospitable Shutter Island. The staff and patients fail to co-operate with his investigation, and it soon becomes clear that the chief psychiatrist Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) is hiding something big. It turns out that Teddy has his own personal reasons for coming to the island, and soon he begins to wonder if the case that brought him there isn't part of a larger conspiracy. The weather worsens, trapping Teddy and his partner on the island but also providing him with the cover he needs to explore forbidden areas of the facility and discover the secret of Shutter Island.

I can't say too much more without spoiling things. Teddy starts to doubt his sanity as he experiences visions of his dead wife and his horrific experiences at the Dachau concentration camp in WW2. There is also a suggestion that the House Un-American Activities Commission is funding radical experimental brain surgery on patients. Standard stuff for this kind of B-thriller. It's like Total Recall with fedoras and cigarettes. Towards the end it gets a little bogged down in flashbacks and exposition that is mostly redundant because you know the film is building up to a big twist at the end. Although this kind of twist ending can really fuck over a movie I think Scorcese mostly sticks the landing. Good job.

I think DiCaprio's performance gets a little cheesy at times, but I really loved Mark Ruffalo as his partner. I think it's a performance that would really benefit from a repeat viewing in the context of the ending. There is an amazing supporting cast here too, including Max Von Sydow, Jackie Earl Haley and Patricia Clarkson. Ted Levine has a truly bizarre cameo appearance as the chief warden of the facility. Apropros of nothing, he asks Teddy that if he were to attack him and chew out his eyeball, would Teddy be able to stop him before he goes blind? You know, typical chit-chat. He also insists that "If I were the only thing standing between you and a meal, you'd crack my skull with a rock and eat the meaty parts off my bones." I thought this was a pretty funny line because if he were fighting him for a meal, wouldn't he just eat the meal?

I guess the real star of the movie is the island itself. Is there anything scarier than an old-timey insane asylum? No. No there isn't. The facility itself is spooky but more than a little ridiculous; although there appears to be hundreds of staff and orderlies there's only 66 inmates. A couple dozen of the inmates, the worst of the worst, are housed in a separate building, a Civil-War-era fort, sealed in a dungeon with rusty gates and wet stone walls. It's not particularly secure though. Apparently when the power goes out all of the electronic locks open, all the criminally insane patients are set loose and all the staff have to chase them down with butterfly nets. I found myself thinking of Arkham Asylum several times during this movie, and not just because I think about Batman ten to twenty times every day.

This setting is beautifully photographed and Scorcese uses it to create an eerie and suspenseful atmosphere. This is the kind of movie that could been packed full of cheap jump-scares, but instead Scorcese uses them sparingly (so when they work they really work) and pulls more subtle tricks to mess with your mind. For instance, I noticed that sometimes the editing was off, lots of skipped frames and poor continuity. Not distractingly so, just enough to keep you on edge. I thought some of Teddy's visions got a little broad and cheesy, but they were also full of cleverly creepy touches, like the smoke on his cigarettes moving in reverse. Something has to be said about the music, though. Mostly it's quite subtle but sometimes it's way too overbearing. The opening of the film was a particuarly egregious example; just when you think it couldn't get any more bombastic and ridiculous another few instruments would kick in.

With Scorcese's best films you walk out of the theatre feeling like you've been kicked in the nuts, but that doesn't really happen here. Maybe the foot just grazes the nuts a little bit, but you won't be stumbling out of the theatre metaphorically pissing blood. Still, I think he's earned the right to make a film that's just an excellent B-picture instead of a testicle-pulverising tour-de-force. What he does manage to do is turn a by-the-numbers B-thriller into something a lot classier than you'd expect.

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