Friday, February 19, 2010

Film Review – Shutter Island

Writer: Laeta Kalogridis (based on a novel by Dennis Lehane)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson Emily Mortimer, Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch, Elias Koteas, Jackie Earle Haley, Max von Sydow
Neo-noir thriller, 137 minutes

I was prepared for the worst before I saw this.  I got a sense from the odd headlines (I try to avoid reading reviews themselves prior to seeing a film) that the reaction to Martin Scorsese’s latest film Shutter Island was decidedly mixed.  I also heard from director Ruba Nadda (who made the delightfully subtle yet charming Cairo Time) that Scorsese told her that he had to contend with money people showing up on set and telling him what shots to get.  He was infuriated and stormed off.  Imagine the nerve of anyone, let alone non-filmmakers, telling Martin Scorsese how to make a film!

I certainly did get the sense that he may have lost some creative control over this, the way he did with some of his more ambitious films like Gangs of New York.  So no, it’s not one of his masterpieces by any means.  But there are things to like about it.  The acting of the top-notch all-star cast is superb.  I didn’t mind the strident but interesting score, a mélange of modern classical music assembled by Robbie Robertson.  The story from a novel by Dennis Lehane is good.  It tells of an FBI Marshall Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) who goes to Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of a patient but also uses the opportunity to delve into an incident from his past. 

But after the excellent Lehane adaptations Mystic River by Clint Eastwood and Gone Baby Gone by Ben Affleck, Scorsese’s effort doesn’t live up to expectations.  Weird – to think that Scorsese would be outdone by Ben Affleck.  It’s tricky to pinpoint where exactly it falls short.  Perhaps the writing could have benefited from some tightening up.  At a running time of 2 hours and 17 minutes, the editing could have been tightened as well.  Perhaps Scorsese’s own operatic filmmaking style is getting dated or not best-suited to the horror/thriller genre.  It seems his camera work would alternate between still, symmetrical Wes Anderson-style shots with busy panning, left and right.  His flashy filmmaking technique could be distracting on occasion.

In fact, it became apparent that he was quoting from his vast knowledge of film noir.  DiCaprio has said that he showed the cast Out of the Past, Vertigo, The Steel Helmet, and Laura among others.  I caught some of the visual references he was making, such as a spiral staircase or the waves on rocks that are reminiscent of Vertigo.  It made me want to see some of those classics again, and made me realize that my enjoyment of the film would be improved if I knew my film history as well as Scorsese.

I do think that it is a film that will benefit from a second or third viewing.  And like Cape Fear, it is a film that will probably grow in critical acclaim over time.  Some have found the ending to be a head-scratcher, but it made sense to me.  It reminded me of Brazil and Total Recall, and perhaps even Memento.  Though I have often found Wikipedia to be unreliable, I actually found the interpretation of the ending given in the plot summary to be correct, or at least as I see it. Check it out if you’re still in doubt.

Rating: 3/5


  1. I see that the plot outline on Wikipedia doesn't appear now unless you click the article tab again at the top. For your convenience, here is the discussion of the ending taken from that page *SPOILER ALERT*:

    In the end of the movie it is revealed that "Teddy" is actually a delusional mental patient in the hospital. He murdered his manic depressive wife Dolores Chanal (Michelle Williams) after she drowned their three children. He was a mental patient at the hospital for two years, and the doctors decided to try a roleplay experiment to allow him to live out his delusional fantasy in order to come to grips with reality. The treatment plan works - and the patient is retold what has happened to him and he accepts what he did to his wife. However, in the final scene he relapses to a delusional state, and the administrator decides to lobotomize him. It is implied that he is faking his relapse so he will not have to deal with the mental anguish of his act.

    For me, the ending works well because it's still slightly ambiguous, for the audience and for Teddy. He might have been right all along, or bat-shit crazy. Either way, he's screwed. He either killed his wife and has to live with guilt, or he is onto something dastardly but trapped forever on an asylum. Whatever the case may be, he decides that getting a lobotomy is preferable to living in a hopeless world fully sane.


    I really wanted to like this one but could never get involved with anything in the film. I held no sympathy for DeCaprio's character and the story bored me to tears. When I saw the trailer for the movie my first thought was, "DeCaprio better not be a patient" which is an overused cliche (whether it be the lunatics are running the asylum, or the lead character is actually insane) and the exact same story is done much better in William Peter Blatty's The Ninth Configuration.
    When watching the film and being fairly certain DiCaprio was insane, I wondered if the script was going to masterfully weave DiCaprio's investigation into his disorder, much like The Machinist had Bale's disorder point towards his guilty conscience. I was disappointed that the investigation was thoroughly pointless and it was just his hallucinations that were worth paying any attention to. And I also found most of the surrealistic scenes laughable. And lastly, what was up with him climbing up and down the cliff all the time? Either Scorsese should have made the film more realistic (to make the audience believe there could actually be a conspiracy) or more surreal (to play DiCaprio as a tragic figure and not have so much hinging on the "twist" at the end). And unbelievably, there was some fairly poor editing choices from Shoonmaker in this as well. People are walking then suddenly standing still or when DiCaprio first takes the aspirin it is oddly cut. Sadly, there was very little that I enjoyed in the film.