Sunday, February 21, 2010

Review: 'Shutter Island' [A-]

Martin Scorsese's madhouse mystery is a brooding, bombastic fist-clencher - a genre offering from one of our most prestigious living filmmakers that offers up a serviceable, shifting and involving thriller, technically amplified and accentuated to a pulverizing degree, yet surprisingly laced with meaning and insight that only reveals itself with time and repetition.

For all of its explanatory third act revelations, it remains proudly and engagingly ornate - a smokey work full of style and bare-knuckled moodiness that eventually outworks its deficiencies.

The film begins with a boat emerging from the fog, a detective (Leonardo DiCaprio) is dripping water from his face, pleading with his reflection to "pull yourself together." As the ferry approaches an island, a seemingly endless supply of skulking, strong-jawed security guards greet the detective and his partner (Mark Ruffalo) to the sounds of the deep, probing and conspiring notes of Krzysztof Penderecki's Symphony No. 3. As if you didn't know, something is amok here on Shutter Island.

Like the repeating tones of that particular musical piece (which both opens and closes the film in tidy fashion), Shutter Island relies on similar repetition in order to submit the audience into a state of psychological unrest and disillusionment. Flashbacks and dream sequences (some of them on top of one another) rule the days and sleepless nights of the confounded Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio).

And essentially, Shutter Island turns out to be Scorsese's arsenal of well-oiled gears and gadgets wound up like clockwork to run something seemingly less demanding. Teddy's plight is depicted initially like a B-movie genre trope before subsequent viewings and digesting reveals something heartier - this film isn't about fooling you and holding a carrot in front of your face, it's about the roots of violence, anger and psychological instability. (Not to mention a slight commentary on the condition of post-WWII mental health care.)

For me, Shutter Island is a fully alive and compelling genre piece. It may feel at times like a film that wallows in its own deceptions and technique, trying desperately to surprise the audience, but by the end, it becomes something with more weight, ambiguity and old-fashioned directorial commitment than anything we're likely to see this year. It may not be Scorsese's The Shining - it's too slavish to Dennis Lehane's source novel for that - but after much gestation, I believe it could be the director's greatest work in over two decades.


  1. Hollow? Leo's last line of the film reveals so much about the film.

  2. I have to concur with Fitz - that last line is a killer.

    I must admit this much, thinking back on the whole film and comparing it to where the whole story goes - I am left in a state of wanting to see it again!

    This won't ever be mentioned in the same breath as Scorsese's very best, but it's still a pretty solid offering and mindbender.

    (PS - If you're interested, Big mike Mendez and I did a podcast about Shutter & Scorsese. It's up on my blog right now).

  3. @Fitz - I was coming more from the point of view of wondering whether Scorsese was just playing with us in a manipulative, showy, genre-trope kind of way where he's just pulling levers and ropes to see what stuff flies out next, but the more I think about it and after seeing it a second time, I don't think he is.

    And yes, the last line is great, as is Mark Ruffalo's subtle shake of the head just before its delivered. And there is something to be said about the way that SHUTTER ISLAND examines the roots of violence and its effect on people, plus the state of post WWII health care.

    But in terms of being a film of immense depth, well I just don't see it. I like the film a lot, but it's too explanatory and too genre-fied to work that way.

    @Mad Hatter - the same thing happened to me, which I why I just got back from seeing it again. It's a different viewing experience for sure and I recommend it.