Monday, 5 April 2010

FILM REVIEW: Shutter Island


Or "Shitter Island!" as it's so lovingly been labelled by many a friend. Yes, probably one of the downfalls of Shutter Island is that it comes hand in hand with a "big twist at the end", so by the time you've nestled into your cinema seat you've already concocted any number of possible rug pulls for the film to throw at you. And sadly in this case the most obvious one turns out to be the humdinger. So that was a bit of a let down, as was the subsequent incogitable explanation. But it's not all bad in Scorsese's attempt at a Hithcockian suspense drama.

The story as we know it is expertly crafted, with new Scorsese muse Leonardo Di Caprio steering us through the madness. He plays US Marshal Edward 'Teddy' Daniels who along with new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) are sent to the isolated asylum on the island to investigate the disappearance of one of the inmates. Almost immediately we realise that Teddy is not stable leading official he is presented as: he's blighted by sea sickness and headaches on the boat trip over, experiences death camp flashbacks almost ordinarily and is at times overcome by spasms of uncontrollable anger which he is at a loss to explain. It soon unravels that his life up until this investigation has been traumatic, punctuated by his time as a young US soldier in Nazi Germany and the death of his beloved wife (Michelle Williams) in an arson attack. And his apparent assignment to the missing inmate case has not been a random event: for the man who caused the fatal arson attack - Andrew Laeddis - was sent to Shutter Island after he was convicted, and has not been heard of since.

The build up to this mini revelation and Teddy's true reasons for coming to the island unfold nicely, as the set up on Shutter Island is presented to us by Scorsese in a truly chilling way. There's the foreboding and menacing 'Ward C' where the most dangerous patients are kept; the prickly team of doctors headed by Ben Kingsley who seem to know more than they're willing to share; the impossible mystery surrounding the disappearance of Rachel Solano, who vanished from a padlocked cell without any shoes; the mysterious lighthouse, and the impending ferocious storm that's about to render the marshals extended visitors to the island. But the biggest contributor to the suspense - and the most effective - is Scorsese's use of music. It's used in such a drumming and over amplified way that it reminded me of Kubrick's The Shining more than a few times. And going back to that Hitchcock inspired style, there were moments when an event collided with a crescendo of music to heighten the dramatic nature of the scene - such as the doors being blown open to the mausoleum by thunder and lightening as Teddy reveals to Chuck that Laeddis is somewhere on the island. Fabulous use of pathetic fallacy, and an astounding score.

And it's at this moment that the film begins to change, and protagonist Teddy begins to come apart. His belief that arsonist Laeddis is on the island is put into his head by his dead wife, who haunts his dreams and then his waking hallucinations, too. He becomes convinced the asylum is conducting terrible mental experiments on the inmates in the lighthouse, and when Rachel Solano is found safe and well, Teddy's paranoia begins to consume him. The scene where he breaks into Ward C and meets re-institutionalised informant George Noyce (an excellent Jackie Earle Haley) and then finds the 'real' Rachel Solano in a cliff top cave who tells him his paranoia is justified is when we start to realise as the viewer that he's (going) insane. Then comes the oft-posed question: is he crazy or is he right? The answer is at first obvious and the lame 'twist' aforementioned, but as we get the real backstory of Teddy Daniels things start to become much more tragic, and we begin to understand the reasons for his insanity, and in turn the reasons for what we have just watched.

*spoiler alert*

Finding out that he is Laeddis, but that his wife didn't die in a fire but was clinically depressed and drowned their three children before being shot by him is shocking to take in, and is intensified by the immensely powerful and horrible scene which recounts it. The events are so traumatic that he has created an alternate reality and persona that he lives in day to day, where he is a US marshal investigating a missing person case on the island and not, as is the twist, a patient in the asylum. It's such a shame the explanation of it all is so ham-fisted: the doctor explaining that the whole string of events leading up to his realisation was the asylum team playing along with a 'roleplay' so that he can act of his delusion and be cured of it and the anagram system he uses to come up with all the fake names in his alternate world: Teddy Daniels = Andrew Laeddis. What seems clever comes across as rather silly and cockeyed.

But what saves it from M Night Shamahamahamalan ridiculousness is the assured directing of the film, the stylish depiction of events in a thoroughly committed way. The ending as well is a surprise: the deception this time on the characters and us the viewers being the ones let in on what's really happening - Laeddis faking a relapse so he doesn't have to 'be cured': "Which would be worse, to live as a monster, or die as a good man?”

But putting aside that dangling question for the moment, the one I'm tickled by is when did Leonardo Di Caprio become Jack Nicholson?! Perhaps it was just the role, but he looked eerily like a younger version of the renowned veteran actor here. And the way his career is going, maybe that's an accurate comparison to make.

It's not a classic, but Shutter Island is a worthy change of style for Scorsese and it is enjoyable to watch such accomplished filmmaking come together. It's just a shame the twist was so heavily publicised as it distracts from what is a rich and compelling yarn.



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