The Brag

Film: Shutter Island

In Arts, Brag 349 (February 15), Film Reviews on February 17, 2010 at 9:24 am

Film
Shutter Island
Released February 18.

It’s easy to have a heightened critical eye when a director has the likes of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas in his filmography. And it’s true that Martin Scorsese’s latest, an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s best-seller, is not quite of that standard. But Shutter Island is still an exhilarating movie, a dense psychological mind trip into the world of 1950s mental institutions.

Scorsese shoots it like gothic horror, like One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest drowned in Kafka and German Expressionism. This is so from our first view of the jagged island, as seen from the incoming boat ferrying U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). They’re on their way to investigate a patient’s disappearance, but the two lead physicians, played by Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow, are unhelpful: either too calm and evasive (in the former case) or obviously malicious (in the latter). Soon a storm brews, patients run amok, Teddy starts having visions of the liberation of Dachau and his tragically dead wife (Michelle Williams), and general weirdness ensues.

While it wanders in the second act, the film is always fascinating as it tenuously borders the line between the real and the unreal, never making it obvious which is which. What is clear is that something is not quite right on the island. Are the CIA continuing Nazi eugenics experiments? And what are the doctors hiding?

DiCaprio is the standout in a fine cast; who’d have thought the heartthrob from Romeo + Juliet would have become Scorsese’s new De Niro? The real master, however, remains the man in the chair. Even when working within genre limitations, his startling compositions, whip pans and ambiguous handling of the material gives weight to a story that could have been trite and simplistic. Every element works here: the beautiful cinematography by Robert Richardson, the effective use of source music (there is no original score) and the perfectly judged performances from a cast playing tricky characters that are often more than they appear.

It’s only a shame, at very least for DiCaprio, that it comes too late for the awards season.

4/5
Joshua Blackman

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