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Rapid Review: Shutter Island

February 28, 2010


Martin Scorsese is perhaps one of the greatest working directors in film.  On the surface, he has directed a myriad of vastly different movies – Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence, The Aviator…  His previous dramatic film, The Departed, won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.  Yet these films are not so different as they appear on the surface. What all of Scorsese’s films have had in common is their undying and worshipful devotion to character development.  What would Goodfellas have been without the honest, street smart narration of Henry Hill?  Likewise, what would The Aviator have been without the bubbling mania of Howard Hughes’ obsession with fast women and fast airplanes?  Without strong, identifiable characters, a film is just an empty shell.  One could never accuse a Scorsese film of such a crime.  Shutter Island keeps up that legacy, giving us a central protagonist who could certainly never be found guilty of the crime of being forgettable.

All of Scorsese’s films also share a common theme:  the need for an outsider to work his way into the “inner circle” of whatever world he inhabits.  Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, Henry Hill, Amsterdam Vallon in Gangs of New York, even Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence were all looking to cross that shadowy, intangible line that exists to separate a second class citizen from a big time game-changer.   Teddy, Shutter Island’s central figure, would be quite at home with Scorsese’s other protagonists in this pantheon.

Crossing the threshold of Shutter Island

Shutter Island has been lauded by some as a departure for Scorsese.   Well, perhaps it is not so simple.  It IS a venture into the thriller/mystery genre (which Scorsese has not explored fully since his re-make of Cape Fear in 1991), but it also is very similar in style and theme to his other, conversationally- driven past films.   The clue to this “new incarnation” lies no further than the title.  The island itself (or should I say, what it represents) is one of the movie’s most interesting characters. 

Shutter Island is based on the best-selling horror/mystery novel by Dennis Lehane.  The movie is awash in almost an eerie glee, as if Scorsese might be saying, “lookie what I can do NOW”!  That’s not a criticism.  Shutter Island’s jarring, observant and chilling visuals are deliberate, and they help tell the story more than any dialogue in the film.  They are nothing less than spectacular, and the mood they create is essential for the film to work as a thriller.

The movie begins with U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck Aule (the always underappreciated Mark Ruffalo) investigating the mysterious disappearance of a muderous inmate from Boston’s Ashecliffe Hospital.  Yet the plot wisely doesn’t choose to focus on what creepy inmates will jump out at the moviegoer, but instead ponders what demons lurk in our own human brains.  This is far more compelling, and thank goodness Scorsese and Lehane agree. 

Scorsese knows how to choose a fine ensemble cast that is masterful enough not to overshadow the movie’s focal points(see: The Departed, Goodfellas) and he rolls out the red carpet for Shutter Island.  Leo DiCaprio owes Scorsese a big thank you.  Much like many of Scorsese’s on-film heroes, DiCaprio’s career has taken him from small time to the big enchilada thanks to roles in Gangs of New York, The Aviator, and The Departed.  DiCaprio’s acting skills are crucial to the “buy-in” we the audience must have for Shutter Island to succeed.  DiCaprio doesn’t disappoint, and Scorsese was wise to choose such a baby-faced grown man to play Teddy,  a character who is as layered and disarming as the island itself.

Kingsley's tight-lipped doctor

Ben Kingsley, as Dr.  Cawley, wisely steers away from scenery-chewing in his pivotal role, as does Jackie Earle Haley, who gives perhaps one of the most interesting (if brief) portrayals in the film.  Haley, who was so undeniably creepy and outstanding in Little Children, here shows his recent comeback as a character actor is no fluke of fate.  His beady eyes and off-kilter demeanor are pitch-perfect.

To say much more about the plot of Shutter Island would be to give away too many of its secrets – much like giving you a  map of a haunted house, it would ruin the in-the-moment fun of the experience.

Many critics have been pooh-poohing Shutter Island’s ending and “slow” pacing.  To this, I say that they miss the point of the story entirely.  Island‘s excellent pacing (produced in no small part by Scorsese’s long time editor, Thelma Schoonmaker) is central to the film’s core story and theme.  It succeeds, and if some are left scratching their heads, it is certainly not the fault of  the director, editor or screenwriter. 

Shutter Island is by no means Scorsese’s masterpiece, nor is it as complex and thought-provoking as many of his recent films.  Still, it is by far the most interesting and compelling movie to arrive at the cineplex in months. 

Suffice it to say that this Island is well worth visiting.  Bring a friend – you won’t want to leave the theater alone in the dark.  Then again – we’re always alone in our own minds…or are we?

Overall Grade:  A

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