Friday, February 19, 2010

"Shutter Island" - REVIEW

There are an eerie number of similarities to be found in Martin Scorcese's Shutter Island and John Hillcoat's The Road. First, both are adapted from acclaimed novels; second, both adaptations are quite faithful to the events from the novels; third, both feature acclaimed directors and actors; and last (and worst) of all, both were delayed. This, however, is where they diverge. Whereas The Road was delayed by a full year in order to have a less rushed post-production period, as well as to tweak the film based on test screenings, Scorcese's film had been completed for a goodly while, and had been testing through the roof. The question remains then, why on earth was such a damn good film pushed into the "dead zone" of film releases, instead of pushed as a prime Oscar contender? Was there trouble in the studio, or in the marketing department? Was the film actually testing poorly? Was it Paramount's financial situation? Most likely it's the latter, but that mostly comes down to speculation, and that's not what this post is about; we're here to talk about Shutter Island, the latest collaboration between Martin Scorcese and Leonardo DiCaprio (this being their fourth).

Adapted from Dennis Lehane's chilling 2003 novel of the same title (thank god they didn't change it to "Ashecliffe," as had been rumored), the film is the story of Boston-based federal marshals (or in this case: DUAHLLY APPOINTED FEHDERAHL MAHSHALLS) Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). Set in 1954, the film opens with the pair on a ferry to Shutter Island, where criminally insane murderess Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer, always a welcome presence) has mysteriously vanished without a trace. However, as indicated in any of the marketing, there's more going on at Shutter Island that anyone could have predicted.

One of the most immediately striking aspects of Scorcese's latest is that is feels so, well...un-Scorcese like. In style it feels more like one big creepy homage to both Hitchcock and Kubrick's The Shining (1980). Creepy imagery seems to fill every frame, even in the daytime, and even when it doesn't, the film throws you off balance with blaring, ominous music. In the film's most obvious Kubrick reference, unsettling horns and strings cry out as the camera follows a car along a seemingly safe, winding road. Only minutes later, we're given the opposite: Teddy sees, in slow motion, a particularly eerie patient look up at him and hold her finger to her lips while mouthing "shhhh," all in complete silence. This may not be Scorcese's next masterpiece, but if there's one thing clear, it's that Shutter Island is Scorcese's at his most un-restrained, and most gleefully cinematic and genre-conscious. But be warned, the film is something of a slow-burner, and it will require your full attention. And it's long (2 hrs 18 min).

But ultimately what works about Shutter Island is, ironically what partially hurt The Road: extreme faithfulness to the source material (to be fair, McCarthy's novel was never going to be easy to film...ever). The story remains as compelling as it was on page, even if it might not move as quickly as expected. It also benefits from its superb casting, not only in DiCaprio and Ruffalo (who is underused; the character isn't actually THAT prominent), but in the wide range of supporting players such as Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow. But the three who really stand out here are the women: Michelle Williams as Teddy's wife, Emily Mortimer as Rachel Solando, and Patricia Clarkson as a, well, mysterious woman. Williams is graceful and quietly magnetic, as is Clarkson in her one scene, but for me it's Mortimer who partially steals the show. The bug-eyed could have been done by anyone, but there's a particular dream sequence where she and Scorcese's style shine. She appears behind Teddy, covered in the blood of the three bodies at her feet, with her face looking like it was streaked by a madman's paintbrush. It's one of several haunting images that make the film memorable.

And that might just be the only significant issue I have with Shutter Island: the style. The film certainly isn't hollow, but in visually amping up the creep factor, the film's characters, even central protagonist Teddy, don't resonate as emotionally as they perhaps could have. This, along with the slightly dragged out, spell-it-all-out ending, hamper the film, but only slightly. All in all, the performances (DiCaprio is quite strong as a man gradually questioning his own sanity), the music (none of which is original, and ranges from Mahler to Max Richter) and most of all Scorcese's direction and the atmosphere he creates, add up to create one hell of a creep-fest that stands as proof that February doesn't have to be a dark period for theatrical releases.

Grade: B+/B

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