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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews Shutter Island

And so we come at last to the final installment (for now, at least!) of my “Catching Up on 2010” series, in which I’ve been writing about all of the 2010 films that I watched in my very busy January attempt to catch up on as many of the 2010 films that I’d missed as possible.

Martin Scorcese’s new film, Shutter Island, didn’t much interest me when it came out last summer.  But it was a new Scorsese picture, so it automatically had my attention.  I never got around to seeing it in theatres, but I was able to catch up to it on DVD last month.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a US Marshall dispatched, along with his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), to investigate the disappearance of an inmate at Shutter Island, a mental hospital for the criminally insane located off the coast of Massachusetts.  The woman, Rachel, seems to have vanished without a trace from within her locked cell.

Right away from the beginning of the film, I was a bit put off by the over-wrought score.  Every beat in those early moments was punctuated by bombastic, creepy music that seemed to state loudly, just in case we missed it, that SHUTTER ISLAND IS EVIL and something REALLY BAD is going on there!  I felt that the dour overcast skies, the deranged-looking inmates, the imposing architecture, and the unfolding story would have been more than sufficient to establish a suitably fearsome, unsettled vibe, which is clearly what Mr. Scorsese was going for in those opening scenes.  I didn’t think there was any need for the over-the-top score to shove that in our faces.

But once the plot began to unfold I thought the film settled down into a nice rhythm.  There are some great actors at play in this film, and I enjoyed watching the mysteries of the story develop and deepen.  I was also quite struck by the backstory given to Mr. DiCaprio’s character, Teddy.  It turns out that he was involved in the liberation of a concentration camp at the end of WWII, and he is haunted by the atrocities he witnessed — as well as the reprisals against the German soldiers of the camp that he participated in.  That particular story point caught me off-guard.  I had no idea that the Holocaust played any part in the story of Shutter Island.  (The trailers wisely left that tid-bit out.)  I was intrigued by this revelation of Teddy’s back-story.  It indicated to me that perhaps there was far more going on in Shutter island than just a ghost story, and that Mr. Scorsese and his collaborators (including Laeta Kalogridis, adapting Dennis Lehane’s novel) had more to say in the film than I had expected.

While I don’t think the film ever lives up to the promise of those scenes, there is certainly a lot to enjoy about Shutter Island.  The film looks gorgeous.  Mr. Scorsese has a keen eye for imagery, as always, and the film’s 1950’s setting is gorgeously brought to life by the lush costumes, props, sets, etc.

The cast is strong.  Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese have formed a really powerful creative bond, and it’s fun to see them continuing to work together, exploring different genres.  (I will comment, though, that I’m not a huge fan of the Boston accent that Mr. DiCaprio has been using in several of his films lately.  It’s not terrible, but it doesn’t feel totally genuine to me, either.)  I’ve really been growing to love Mark Ruffalo (I think David Fincher’s Zodiac was the first film to impress upon me that he was a great talent) and he turns in another strong performance here.  I had no idea that Max von Sydow was in the film, so that was a fun surprise.  He has a fairly small role, but it’s always a thrill to see him on-screen (and to hear him deliver dialogue in his wonderfully deep, rich voice).  Ben Kingsley is great as Dr. Cawley, the man who runs Shutter Island.  (Is he a kindly doctor trying to help desperately ill people?  Or is he an evil villain, using terrifying techniques to “cure” the insane??  Mr. Kingsley does a terrific job of leading the audience down both possibilities.)  Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, and Jackie Earle Haley all shine in small supporting roles.

I had read that this film was a real stinker, but I don’t think it’s that bad.  To me, Shutter Island’s major crime is that it’s just a little flat.  While I admired the skill on display in the film (from the actors, director, set designers, costumers, etc.), I never really emotionally engaged in the story being told.  I enjoyed the twistiness of the plot, but I’d bet the final revelations read better in Dennis Lehane’s original novel than they play on a movie screen.  I think the film is too long — with a few too many narrative digressions — to be able to truly sustain the tension and suspense of the story.

I did, though, really love the unexpectedly (at least, to me) tragic nature of the film’s final scene.  Great stuff.

Shutter Island is a weird, twisty, suspense thriller.  It’s well-made and features a terrific cast.  With Martin Scorsese at the helm, one might expect more, but I advise any interested viewers to go in with lowered expectations.  This is a fun little mind-bender of a film, but it is far from one of Mr. Scorsese’s best works.

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