In some corners audiences and critics are pointing to this thriller as a sure-fire Oscar pick already. Other corners are resounding in their unanimous "Thumbs Down". To be fair, this is one of those films whose surprise ending was, to me, pretty obvious from just watching the preview. To be honest, however, there is a lot more to Shutter Island than just a "Surprise Twist Ending"! Is it among Scorsese's best? Maybe not. Some may be bored, some may find the entire plot predictible. However, even accepting all of this, there is a lot more to appreciate in this film from the technical achievements to the way Scorsese presents these varied puzzle pieces in this mystery, to the textured cinematography to (in some cases) the acting.
One thing that remains surprising about Shutter Island is the fact that this is evokative of four words that are hardly ever spoken together: "Martin Scorsese Horror Movie"! Yes, that sounds strange, however, this somewhat misunderstood fact, coupled with the facts about this film's source material may lead to a lot of the complaints that detractors have laid upon this film.
To begin with, when novelist Dennis Lehane set out to write his 2003 novel Shutter Island, he attempted to construct a story most akin to gothic B Movies and pulp stories. As foriegn as the concept of a "Martin Scorsese Horror Movie" seems to be, the idea of a "Martin Scorsese B-Movie" is just about unthinkable. This may be why certain elements don't quite feel like the usual expected conceits from movies of this kind. By (intentionally or unintentionally) avoiding the standard horror movie cliches, Scorsese also keeps the audience at an observer's distance. When one is never quite pulled in to be scared along with the characters, many among the audience can't quite connect with the characters or the action in the film. Can such a film work? Sure it can and for the most part, it does. Still there are the occasional moments where I found myself saying "now THAT's not quite right... but how dare I question Marty Scorsese, man?"
Whether I can question him or not, one of the best things about Shutter Island is the fact that it causes the interested audience to ask a great many questions during and after the viewing of the film. This starts right at the beginning when US Marshall Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) meet on the ferry to Shutter Island to investigate the escape of a dangerous and homicidal mental patient named Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer). This remote island off of Massechusetts houses essentially nothing but the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane (a place that is efficient or scary enough to have incorporated an old Civil War fort into its operations).
Naturally, this place almost immediately seems to be as bizarre as the Island from LOST, but "The Others" in this case are just the tiniest bit more helpful... at least we think that at first. Deputy Warden McPherson (John Carroll Lynch) seems like a cool enough guy until he demands the weapons from our two Marshalls, while his creepy boss, the Warden himself (played by Ted "Buffalo Bill" Levine) seems almost as creepy as the inmates.
Or as creepy as they might be without the intervention of the psychological expert Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley). Daniels and Aule soon learn of the more groundbreaking techniques that Cawley approaches with his patients. This is whether his superiors and peers, like Dr, Naehring (Max Von Sydow) approve or not.
It is under the watchful and cynical eyes of Naehring and Cawley that the chinks in Daniels' armor begin to show. Through flashbacks and nightmares we begin to see the source of Daniels' armor chinks, beginning with the horrors he saw during World War II, and moving forward to the traumatic death-by-fire of his wife Dolores (the always good Michelle Williams) due to the negligence or malevolence of one Andrew Laeddis (played, when seen, by Elias Koteas)!
It isn't long before Aule starts to understand the sources of Daniels' mission and the concept that Daniels might have been interested in this place for far longer than just his recent investigative assignment to the island. In fact, Daniels starts to wonder if he might be the key figure in an ongoing government charade, a plot to conceal the truth in a global conspiracy with key players at the highest levels of power that reaches down into the lives of every man, woman, and child on this planet! Okay, sorry, I lifted that line from the first X-Files movie, sorry... it just seemed to fit so damned well! The problem is with such horrors that Daniels has seen and such horrors he's facing during his descent into this most mental of mental hospitals, Daniels himself might just be pushing the boundaries of sanity and his ends are fraying.
It can be fun watching the film, through Daniels, ask interesting questions about the reality of things and it can be interesting to question the answers that he gets from the twisting and turning plot. After all, who exactly is the mutilated patient George Noyce (played by Jackie Earle Haley), how does he REALLY know Daniels and how did he get this way? Who is the mysterious woman in the cave (played by Patricia Clarkson), inmate, former employee or both? How exactly can Daniels blow the lid off of this conspiracy (if there is one) without looking quite crazy himself... after all, don't most conspiracy theorists an wolf-criers sound pretty insane to you?
Let's just leave that one as an open question that may or may not receive an answer before the closing credits crawl across that stormy silver screen. The real hope here is that you'll be among the half-an-audience that still cares once those white-on-black names begin their scroll. True enough, a lot of the film is easy to predict, but one must wonder whether this was intentional or not. After all, Marty Scorsese is far from some hack director who doesn't know how to play a mystery out, nor is screenwriter (and executive producer) Laeta Kalogridis inexperienced at quality scripting.
On one hand it could be that certain elements of the tale were givens that most of the audience would pick up on, that only serve to make the rest of the surprises more impactful and engrossing. Will it work for everyone? Perhaps not, but when we look back to the intentions of the original novel (as well as the collective experience of the filmmakers) it's hard to imagine that this was simply sloppy storytelling.
That may remain open for debate, but on the way to our resolution and the discovery of our missing 67th patient we're treated to some interesting and horrific (especially for a Mystery Drama) special effects by Stan Winston Studios (amongst others), some challenging cinematography by Robert Richardson and some great production design by Dante Ferretti! Unfortunately, we still get the same scattershot, That'll-Do editing by Thelma Schoonmaker (watch any given character's changing positioning from scene to shining scene and cut to shining cut to see how phoned in the editing is).
On the other hand the acting is almost universally excellent from all of our leads and supporters! Even Leonardo DiCaprio, whose accent and acting usually sounds more like it belongs in a high school play, pulls off some moments of genuine pathos and believeability. Oh, he's not THAT good, especially when playing against Kingsley, Clarkson, Williams or Von Sydow, but he does pretty well when and where he can shine on his own!
Still, the technical and proficient aspects of this film won't necessarily endear you to it if you aren't already. That's how it crumbles, folks. This film isn't for everyone and there may be those who love it, hate it or are decidedly in the "Far Center" on it! Still others might like it simply because they're supposed to and because Oscar most likely will tell them they should (they are nominating ten "BEST" pictures per year now days). Is it worth seeing to decide for yourself? Most assuredly. There is no waste of time here. Will you come out of it shouting its praises or wondering why you bothered? That's something that only you can answer after the house-lights come up!
As for your loving Brother Kneumsi and his (shockingly) still-frequented web haven WorldsGreatestCritic.com, the film lies decidedly in the middle of insanity and conspiracy, pleasure and pain, the truth and a lie, love and hate... but I'm still saying Shutter Island is quality enough to earn Three and One Half Stars out of Five! It's not quite Scorsese's best (though it's already his best opening weekend) and it's not quite the pleasure cruise or even horror bedlam that many moviegoers were chomping at the thorazine needle for, but there's a lot here to appreciate for the interested film fan.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm taking bets as to just how long readers think it's going to take me to review another film. The most loyal out there have already gone insane at the wait... and I hear one of them has just escaped from their cell as if evaporating through the walls and is on the loose now. Want to investigate more on that? Well, I'll see you in the next reel (someday) and we can check that out together. Huzzah!
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