Friday, February 19, 2010
The more I think about Martin Scorsese's latest film, the more I love it. It takes place on the haunting Shutter Island, and it is the ideal location for a thriller of this ilk. Isolated and gloomy, Scorsese sets the tone for this film right off the bat, with the protagonist, the troubled U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), coaching himself through a bout of sea sickness. When he finally pulls himself together, he has a smoke with his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), and a briefing ensues.
It's 1954, off the coast of Boston, and the two marshals are floating to Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer). She has escaped from the ominous Ashecliffe mental institution, a three-ward complex that houses the criminally insane. With her door locked from the outside, and the only window barred shut, no one can seem to find a plausible method by with the disturbed Rachel escaped. "It's as if she evaporated, straight through the walls," observes the hospital's chief physician, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley).
This film has been marketed and described as a Scorsese effort into the horror genre. It's far from that. In terms of atmospheric and visceral expression, this is certainly new territory for the master, but what's at the center of the film is an in-depth, psychological character study that dates all the way back to the director's days of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.
DiCaprio is an actor with superb range, and with this film, he is expected to stretch his comfort zone a great deal, and he nails it. From the opening scene, featuring a close-up of the actor's soaked face, you can feel the intensity of this portrayal crawling into your skin. I'm not sure the film would have worked with anybody else playing Teddy Daniels.
This is a film with several things going for it. It has a set-up that is good enough to make for an effective mystery in its own right, and although I had read the novel prior to this film, the answers unraveled much better than I had expected. Scorsese also succeeds with flying colors in terms of keeping the suspense at high voltage throughout the entire film. Many have viewed the director's attempts at creating tension -- such as Robert Richardson's pulverizing soundtrack -- to be overbearing and unnecessary, but I found it to be quite the contrary. That isn't to say that Richardson's score is something I'd want to hear on the radio, but within the context of the atmosphere that Scorsese creates, it fits like a glove.
There are also several scenes of tension that are carried out with complete silence. Many times the film was so quiet that you could hear the people next to you breathing, and it is this masterful contrast that shows a director in full control of his techniques. As great as the soundtrack feels within the film's most intense moments, it is the instances of utter silence that impacted me the most. Much of this film is about fear of the unknown and the misunderstood, and nothing symbolizes the unknown like silence and darkness.
For all of its gripping presentational techniques, the thing that really holds the film together is the development of the hero. Teddy Daniels is as complex as they come and, much like in novels in general, the character's back-story is revealed piece by piece. What may seem like overacting from DiCaprio early on becomes a perfect humanization when we learn more about this layered character. There are repeated flashbacks from both Teddy's violent, murderous experiences at the Dachau concentration camps, and the brutal murder of his wife Dolores (Michelle Williams). I don't think the former scenes are presented as well as they could have been (although DiCaprio makes them effective nevertheless), but it is really through the latter scenes that the film finds its emotional power. In a very tricky role, Williams does an excellent job playing Teddy's deceased wife, and it is the emotions that vibrate between her and DiCaprio that cause us to sympathize most with Teddy.
In all likelihood, Shutter Island is a film that will be forgotten come year's end because of its awkward release date, but I doubt there will be many better ensemble casts all year. DiCaprio's masterful performance would have put him in Oscar contention if the film's original release date stuck, but there are also noteworthy performances from every supporting player. In an underwritten role, Ruffalo provides a stable partner for Teddy, while Kingsley's sinister delivery provides anything but a comfort for the main character. Both Patricia Clarkson and Jackie Earle Haley orchestrate scenes that are dramatic highlights for the film, while actors such as Max von Sydow, John Carroll Lynch, and Ted Levine make solid contributions towards enhancing the menace of the island.
This is the third screen adaptation to date based upon a Dennis Lehane novel, and right now, I would put this one right in the middle. Although DiCaprio is certainly Sean Penn's equal, it lacks the overall emotional impact of Mystic River, but it remains far superior to the disappointing Gone Baby Gone. It is, however, the most tense out of all three, and I'm glad that Laeta Kalogridis' screenplay stayed fully faithful to the source material.
Many might think that Shutter Island will play better the second time around, and while there is a lot of truth to that, I was mesmerized by the ambiguity and mysteriousness of the first viewing. DiCaprio's character has so many dreams and flashbacks that telling the difference between fantasy and reality becomes a chore in itself. That is not a criticism by any means; in fact, I think it's the point of the film. Teddy Daniels is a hallucinatory narrator, one who is hardly worthy of telling a story of this complexity. But it is through this narrator that Shutter Island distinguishes itself from a lot of other films with twisty plot lines. By the end, I cared more about the character than I did about the actual mystery, and that's a testament to DiCaprio's performance more than anything else. Scorsese might have pulled several new visceral tricks out of his bag for this one, and while most of them work to great effect, it is DiCaprio, the director's right-hand man, that makes Shutter Island a full-blown spellbinder.