Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
A character, late into the game of Martin Scorsese's wonderful Shutter Island, comments on insanity, "It was like an insect in my brain, pulling my strings."  And there, ladies in gentlemen is how a well seasoned and versatile master-filmmaker can take a simple genre movie and elevate it to one of the premiere film events of 2010.  The trailer suggests all kinds of horror (and mental asylum) cliches and pretty much gives away the twist ending right there.  But no matter, the pleasure here is in the journey, not the destination, and the director (and his long-time collaborating editor) have no problem stepping off the path of the main story to give loads of detail on the denizens, workings and locations of the titular island-asylum-prison.  Those who complain that 138 minutes is way to long for such a basic plot have completely missed the point (and the myriad pleasures) that Shutter Island has on offer.

The story is set in the 1950s and follows the investigation of a baffling disappearance by an insane murderous woman from an island-prison off the coast of Boston by a pair of G-Men (Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo).  Trapped on the jagged rock by a storm, trying to assemble the strange stories from the patients, and getting precious little help from the warden and doctors, the federal officers fly headlong into conspiracy, paranoia and hallucinatory states of mind somewhere in between M. Night Shyamalan and The Shining.  The film spends a significant portion of time discovering the nooks and crannies of the island, with its 19th century fort converted to dangerous offenders mental ward, as well as well groomed gardens, weeping brick basements and aristocratic doctors quarters.  Along with an isolated lighthouse, ragged stony cliffs and leafy forests, the island is a world unto itself.  And then there is the head-space of Leonardo DiCaprio's Teddy Daniels whose opening line is "Pull yourself together, Teddy" and seems on the verge of cracking at just about every moment of the investigation.

So, patients and patience are the focus and core of Shutter Island.  The former represent a wonderful collection of great character actors doing their thing.  Ben Kingsley plays the head doctor (and head-doctor) who advocates time and care first, drugs and frontal lobotomy a far and distant second.  This is Scorsese as a surrogate saying (to me at least) you can go for Avatar (drugs) or Transformers (lobotomy) or you can watch a film interested in building characters and story and theme.  Max Von Sydow as a couple wonderful scenes as the more aggressive doctor and Ted Levine (probably best known as Dollarhyde Buffalo Bill in another another horror/prodcedural hybrid - Silence of the Lambs) has a show stopper with DiCaprio which takes a big bite at the animal vs. dignity angle woven throughout the film.  Shutter Island has been compared by many critics to the seminal films of Val Lewton, it is indeed a throwback film in quieter pacing and emphasis in glue character and plot together.  But there are plenty of elements of 70s era movie making (of which Scorsese was obvious one of the chief film brats of that rich period) including nods towards Brian DePalma, Roman Polanski and Milos Forman.  This is undoubtedly Scorsese's newer brand of filmmaking (which has been more than a little uneven since Leonardo DiCaprio has taken over as chief leading man and the director contending with massive studio budgets) incorporating some spiffy modern effects judiciously in service of mode and tone, and Robert Richardson's aggressive cinematography melded to the material (and being wonderful eye candy.)

This one should handily reward subsequent viewings.  Even elucidating the 'secret' from either the marketing materials or the hundreds of hints (indeed Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis have a ball dropping sly visual and dialogue tidbits at the drop of a hat) in no way hampers relishing in the voluminous detail or the marvel of having all the tricks and traps end up in a message of compassion and human dignity.  And the thrum-n-drang of well made cinema.

Shutter Island

  • Martin Scorsese
  • Laeta Kalogridis (screenplay)
  • Dennis Lehane (novel)
  • Leonardo DiCaprio
  • Mark Ruffalo
  • Ben Kingsley
  • Max von Sydow
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Martin ScorseseLaeta KalogridisDennis LehaneLeonardo DiCaprioMark RuffaloBen KingsleyMax von SydowMysteryThriller

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