Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Shutter Island

2010. Dir: Martin Scorsese. Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingley, Max von Sydow and Michelle Williams. ●●●●○

I'm not much of a reader. Sure, like anyone I can devour an airport paperback in a couple of sittings, but these are few and far between. I spend much more time between books, with dogeared classics drifting around my desk waiting for the first chapter to be tried agian. Occasionally though I make a bit of effort. It could be because I love the author's style (Michael Chabon, J.G Ballard) or because I've heard great things (The Time Traveler's Wife, Curious incident of the dog in the night-time) OR because I hear there's going to be a movie made form it. Which how I came to read Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island.

I hated it.

But that negative experience meant that I could, when the film came out, watch it with a understanding of where the plot was going and pre-warned about the style. Lehane, who specialises in adult crime thrillers (Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone have both been sucessfully adapted to the big screen), set out to write a genre piece, a gothic mystery with a dramatic twist. As a novel I felt it didn't work as the ending was too neat, too cliched to be true. Of course it's a film cliche, anyway, so naturally it works better in that medium.

As the film starts we see a ferry coming out of the mist on it's way to the titular island and its maximum security institute for the criminally insane. Before we've had a chance to fully register the characters Marshalls Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (geddit???!!! - Mark Ruffalo) are being thundered away from the dock in an open top jeep to a soundtrack of intense classics.

The plots own macguffin is escaped prisoner Rachel Solando who's miraculously squeezed through her bars and disappered into the inhospital island, and the Marshalls have been called to help track her down. Not that that's the only thing on DiCaprio's mind. Whilst he's there he must find out the truth about the secret mind drugs that sinister phychiatrist's Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow are dishing out and avenge the murder of his fragile wife Dolores Chanal (Michelle Williams) by the arsonist Andrew Laeddis who may also be, unregistered, in the island. Meanwhile he's suffering from violent headaches, dreaming about his wife's murder, suffering from flashbacks to World War 2. And, to top it all off, there's a big storm coming.

If all of this combined makes it seem like there's an awful lot going on, you're right. But remember most of these events are red herrings. The film is packing in incident and characters to confuse you, to obscure the truth from your vision. Like the fog in the opening, we aren't meant to understand the full implications of the search until that thrid act reveal. Although you could read those last two paragraphs and in effect solve the entire mystery.

Marty knows what he's doing with the story, in what must be his most satisfying film since Goodfellas. The sensibility of the novel and the genre is a ball that Scorsese is more than happy to pick up and run with. Every underlined clue, every musical cue, every jumpy edit seems to be perfectly judged to reinforce the storys central conceit. It is both a pastiche and a modern response to the melodrams of the 40's and 50's where the heroine (usually) begins to doubt her own security and sanity The Spiral Staircase, Gaslight and Sorry, Wrong Number all come to mind.

To that end we also completely forget it's a Scorsese picture, wih it's use of a classical soundtrack and heavy handed symbolism it's about as far away from his past masterpieces as you can imagine. Only the concentration camp shoot out with it's relentless tracking shot is a clue to who you're working with.

In the lead role DiCaprio continues to grow as an actor, able to convey much with a look or a throwaway line. Even the more outre choices - like the completely gonzo scribbling - seem to fit with the characters arc. The way he plays the final scene by the doors of the asylum is incredible, a massive awareness of his situation combined with a confidence about the path he must follow.

I expect in 10 years time we'll look back at this period in DiCaprio's career (with this Inception and Clint Eastwood J. Edgar Hoover biopic) when he truly matured into the greatest actor of his generation

Ben Kingsley also givs a rare performance as the doctor in charge, slipping from playfulness through exasperation to dismissive sometimes within a single speech.

As you would expect in a Scorsese picture the design is solid, with Dante Ferretti's (Casino, Interview with the Vampire) production design inside Robert Richardson's (Inglorious Basterds, Powder Keg) lens meaning every frame is a piece of art.

Overall this is a wonderful throwback to the films of yore, only let down by it's lack of ambition, with no commentary about the world outside of the film.


Simon said...

Well...I liked it. The ending was shit, but whatever.

Runs Like A Gay said...

Don't get me wrong, Simon, I really enjoyed the film - including the ending.

Just wasn't sold on the book.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Finally someone who thinks that Lehane's novel is not some paragon of its trade. I fervently stand by my first thoughts on Shutter Island, an excellent film (technical wise) but a poor story.