In his long thirty-eight year career the living legend that is Martin Scorsese has made some amazing pictures (Raging Bull, Goodfellas) and some particularly dubious ones (Bring Out the Dead,Gangs of New York). His latest, Shutter Island, falls closer to the former category than the latter, but will never be counted among his best. Nonetheless this noir throwback starts out as a straightforward thriller, but ends up as a mind-bending example of why Scorsese isn’t just a name, it is a force to be reckoned with.
From the opening sequence it is obvious that Scorsese isn’t out to placate the masses. While U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) approach the titular island, on assignment to locate a missing prisoner, the soundtrack booms with the sounds of Polish Composer Antoni Wit’s “Symphony #3,” a dark, foreboding piece that isn’t meant to bring the audience slowly into the mystery. It is there to pound the tone of the picture into their minds – make no mistake this will be hard, not only on the characters you are about to see, but you as well. The piece plays through in its entirety as Teddy, Chuck, and we are introduced to Shutter Island, and the evil it holds.
This piece of music is mixed in so loudly, dominating everything, and it is obvious that you are watching a film. You aren’t immersed in the mind set of the character, you aren’t made to empathize with Teddy, you are meant to watch with a clinical eye, making a diagnosis for yourself about the mental state of the characters on screen. At first.
As the film goes on, as Teddy and Chuck search for the missing woman, Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), who may or may not be missing, uncovering deeper motives Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) may have for bringing the Marshals to the island in the first place, the audience becomes acutely aware of a truth being withheld, not just by the characters in the picture, but by Scorsese himself.
Written by Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, the script pushes the audiences expectations back and forth until the end when it is never established as to where the truth lies. This is a dangerous prospect in the hands of many directors, but Scorsese keeps the film on the razor’s edge without ever tipping in either direction. Just when you think all of the pieces fit together a certain way he introduces a new puzzle.
Looming somewhere very close to Sam Fuller territory Shutter Island has a self-conscious camp that might not sit well with a lot of viewers. DiCaprio’s performance itself melds well with the tone of the picture, but could be seen as slightly over-the-top. Ruffalo and Kingsley likewise rise to the strange challenge infusing their roles with touches of knowing winks to the more theatrical style of acting prevalent in Hollywood up till the late 1960’s.
Like always Scorsese surrounds himself with the best staff possible. Robert Richardson takes Dante Ferretti’s dingy production design to new heights with his lens, making each scene more oppressively gray than the last. The other star behind the camera is long-time Scorsese cohort editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Having cut almost every frame of the director’s long filmography Schoonmaker has been essential in the sculpting of Scorsese’s style. Here is no different. The editing conjures images of After Hours, quickly paced and sharply constructed.
As in most of Scorsese’s pictures, the soundtrack is built of various sources, from the Antoni Wit piece mentioned above to Naim June Paik, all put together by Robbie Robertson. Where Goodfellas had Tony Bennett and the Shangri-Las “Shutter Island” has avant-guard composers like Max Richter and Brian Eno.
All of this adds up to a very challenging picture. While my opinion of it wavered from glowing admiration to dismal disappointment then back again, all within the film’s 138 minutes, it still had me pondering the conclusion after leaving the theater. Shutter Island is a very technical, cerebral film, one which may get a bad wrap for its initial aloofness, but as the film progresses the audience is sucked in, and by the final scene they, like Daniels, can’t be counted on to know exactly what is going on (but not in a bad way).
El Luchador Rating: 4 out of 5
Review By: Paul S. Myers (a.k.a. El Luchador)