Monday, February 22, 2010
In Theaters: Shutter Island
Psychological thrillers are hard. They seem to go off the rails more often than any other genre, because they demand elaborate plots that still somehow stay within the boundaries of reality. There’s none of the wiggle room of horror or science fiction; Hitchcock could get away with plots that stretched credulity, but only in the same way that Babe Ruth could get away with not being able to run bases (and that’s not a fat joke). SHUTTER ISLAND, Martin Scorcese’s latest, manages to be the best such thriller I’ve seen in a long time, partly because it’s being directed by a genuine master of the medium, and partly because it doesn’t cheat the audience. It’s genuinely creepy, with an authentic intensity that builds from the first frame, and it approaches its story and subject matter with a thoughtfulness and care that forms a contrast to its sensationalistic trappings.
Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a U.S. Marshall, called in to the titular island to investigate a disappearance at an institution for the criminally insane. A female patient has apparently vanished from her room without leaving a trace, and the seemingly gentle Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) is hoping she can be found before she comes to too much harm. Daniels, haunted by visions of the death of his wife (Michelle Williams) and his service as one of the liberators of Dachau, has a personal interest in the institution. He thinks it’s where the pyromaniac who set the fire that killed his wife ended up, and as he and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) investigate, more and more details seem to point to sinister goings on. Despite being federal authorities, Daniels and Aule are stymied, overruled, and forced into various directions as they try to investigate, finding themselves opposing whatever dark conspiracy lurks at the heart of the institution.
In the meantime, there’s a storm, the kind of massive hurricane that always hits at dramatically appropriate moments, forcing the Marshalls in with the subjects of their investigation without much power to affect anything. No sooner have we and they become familiar with the institution and the case than the claustrophobia and the oppression start ramping up, and we and they are trapped. There’s almost never a clear sky or a level piece of ground, and as old fashioned and melodramatic as this all seems, it never seems unreal.
This, I think, is Scorcese in his element. He loves old movies and old stories, but sees the reality in them as well as the artifice. He’s got the skill of someone who’s been making great movies for over three and a half decades, he’s working with talented editors and cinematographers and production designers and so on down the line, and he knows how to bring that talent to bear. The film’s scarier sequences and setpieces are beautifully constructed, stylish, but also organic, and the same is true of the surreal dream interludes that let us into Teddy’s increasingly uncertain mental landscape. The music (apparently from outside sources, though I can’t track down details) is used at just the right points as well.
Anchoring all this, DiCaprio has a remarkable intensity but stops short of going over the top, and arguably Mark Ruffalo does a lot to anchor him. If there’s one flaw to pick in all this, the ending is one that at least some in the audience will see coming. It’s a fair twist, the sort where everything makes sense in retrospect (just about, I’m sure there are a few problem areas), but it is one that is, perhaps, done too often in films of this type. I will say nothing more on that subject.
At two hours and eighteen minutes, SHUTTER ISLAND is a bit long for a thriller, but I honestly can’t say my attention ever drifted. This is an overpowering film, heady with mood and mystery and insinuation. It demands your attention, and rewards it; the atmosphere is backed up by a tightly drawn story and believable characters. When someone like Scorcese makes a movie, there’s always the inevitable proclaiming of it as a masterpiece, and the inevitable rush of people saying that it’s not really that good. I’m not sure how well this will hold up in the filmmaker’s body of work, but I will say that I really enjoyed it. And that’s the only judgment I’m qualified to make.
From the novel by Dennis LeHane
Screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis
Directed by Martin Scorcese