Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Trip to "Shutter Island"

I went into "Shutter Island" knowing too much. Just from scanning a few reviews, I had a good idea of what the ending would be, even though I wasn't sure how the film was going to get there. I knew to be on my guard for double-meanings, dream imagery, and the full gamut of parlor tricks used in contemporary psychological thrillers. I've seen so many convoluted plots and narrative hairpin curves, that I've developed a pretty high threshold for the unexpected. I really envy filmgoers who can still be taken in by a good "Twilight Zone" style twist ending.

But while there was nothing in the story of "Shutter Island" that I didn't expect to some degree, I still thoroughly enjoyed the film on almost every level. It is so well made, so beautifully executed by director Martin Scorsese, it succeeds almost in spite of its obvious sensationalism. The material is familiar, following two lawmen on a visit to a sinister island populated by monsters of every stripe – a haunted house story essentially. But I've never seen it told this well, with such obvious care and craft. There wasn't a moment in this film where I wasn't sure that Scorsese knew exactly what he was doing. Everything is so well paced and so well set up. I figured out what was going to happen, but I wasn't just sitting there waiting for the characters to go through the motions to reach the climax. I was anticipating every new development. Or dreading them.

It's hard to think of any element of "Shutter Island" that wasn't exceptional. The cast is full of solid character actors who made even the most bizarre elements of the story seem plausible. Leonardo DiCaprio initially felt like a poor fit for the lead, a troubled fed named Teddy Daniels. But as the film progressed and the more dramatic parts of the plot began to unfold, his performance really came together. Say what you will about DiCaprio's lingering physical gawkiness, but he can act any of his contemporaries six feet into the ground. Here he manages to sell a character in severe psychic and emotional turmoil without ever coming across as overwrought. When he hits his stride, it's impossible not to empathize with him.

But what really held my attention were the visuals. I've often wondered if the increased control that filmmakers have over every single little detail of the images we see onscreen these days might be sucking the vitality out of films. So many blockbusters have an over-designed, artificial quality to them, where every imperfection has been digitally erased or color corrected. Of course these are just new tools, and some directors use them better than others. "Shutter Island" indulges in a lot of this with its dream sequences and flashbacks, which are often saturated with eye-popping color. But Scorsese does such great things with the imagery, letting the visuals echo and build on each other throughout. Fluttering papers in one flashback presage swirling ash flakes in the next. Some connections are so subtle you'll feel compelled to get in a rewatch just to confirm you saw them.

At its heart, "Shutter Island" is a pure genre film, which confused some critics who have come to expect a certain kind of gravitas from Scorsese. I'm not sure why, since this is the man who's directed pictures as disparate as "The Age of Innocence," "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," and "Cape Fear." After so many years of Oscar bait, I expect that Scorsese finally has his fill of directing kudos, and the man is entitled to have a little fun. Or in this case, to take a common, almost cliche horror film premise and turn it into an amazingly effective work of art.

Do you think Scorsese would have any interest in a musical or a romantic comedy next?

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