Thursday, February 18, 2010

Review: "Shutter Island"

"Shutter Island" is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, accompanied by a relentlessly over-the-top musical score. We know from the get-go that the movie is playing mind games with us, and we don't need to have read the novel by Dennis Lehane to figure out pretty early on what the end game will be.

It's never a good thing when an audience knows where a story is going, and waits around for the film to catch up. Director Martin Scorsese and his cast pile on the atmospherics, the 1950s clothes and cars, so at least the waiting room is pleasant to look at.

Early in my career, I eschewed talking with other people who had seen the movie I'd just watched, worried about inadvertently plagiarizing. Lately I've taken to exchanging views with my fellow Indianapolis critics after a screening. We all know each other, so nobody's offended when there are disagreements. If someone says something brilliant, the others are polite enough to let him/her keep it without copycatting.

After "Shutter Island," a half-dozen of us sat around looking at each other, struggling to come up with anything to say. No one seemed blown away by the movie. Nobody really hated it, either. Joe Shearer enumerated some continuity errors that others had also noted but I hadn't, suggesting it was a deliberate attempt to comment on the characters' fractured state of mind.

About the only thing we all agreed on was that this is the sort of movie that requires several viewings to fully digest.

Leonardo DiCaprio, in his third outing with Scorsese, plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall assigned to investigate the disappearance of a patient from Ashcliff, a prison for the criminally insane on a forbidding island in Boston Harbor. The facility, nicknamed Shutter Island, is brimming with beefy security guards toting high-powered rifles, who eye Daniels warily as he disembarks from the ferry -- the only way on or off the island.

Teddy's got a new partner, Chuck, played by Mark Ruffalo. They quickly form a hard-boiled detective trust, although it's clear Teddy isn't telling Chuck everything. Over time, we get a few tidbits: An arsonist named Laeddis (Elias Koteas) who burned down an apartment building, killing Teddy's wife Dolores (Michelle Williams), is secretly being held at Ashcliff. In response to Chuck's worried looks, Teddy promises he's not there to kill Laeddis.

The facility is run by a prim doctor, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), who is less than forthcoming with personnel files and other information necessary for the marshals' investigation. The staff is squirrely, and the patients have obviously been coached in their answers. The warden (Ted Levine) seems ready to engage Teddy in mortal combat at the drop of a hat.

Topping things off, one of the doctors appears to be an ex-Nazi -- which doesn't sit well with Teddy, who as a soldier helped liberate Dachau and saw first-hand the brutality there. (The doc is played by Max von Sydow, I guess with the notion that American audiences can't tell the difference between Swedish and German accents.)

Like an endless ball of yarn, the more of the mystery Teddy and Chuck unspool, the more confusing things continue to get. They suspect the doctors are performing heartless experiments on the mentally ill. A former patient, George Noyce (Jackie Earle Haley), who after his release tipped Teddy off about the goings-on at Ashcliff, turns up in one of the dungeons, beaten to a pulp. Teddy's migraines, usually accompanied by visions of Dolores warning him about dangers ahead, grow more frequent.

I can't give away more, but by this point most audience members will have figured things out for themselves.

The music is omnipresent in the film, to the point of becoming comedic. When Chuck and Teddy first arrive at the facility's steel-and-brick compound, the score reaches an incredible volume of surging minor chords. I'm guessing Scorsese and music supervisor Robbie Robertson were going for something, but I confess I don't know what it is. They say film scores should be felt but not heard; this one not only intrudes into the foreground, it wants to be the life of the party.

"Shutter Island" is an expertly-made movie that left me at times exasperated, but occasionally intrigued. It feels like an exercise in mood manipulation, with the entire plot operating as a MacGuffin to set up scenes of squirm-inducing paranoia. This film doesn't draw its audience in, but treats them like something to be experimented upon.

2.5 stars


  1. I haven't seen "Shutter Island", but your remarks about the soundtrack remind me of my thoughts while watching "There Will Be Blood" for the first time.

    The mix for the music was so high in volume, and so jarring compared to what accompanied on-screen, I worked under the assumption that Anderson was using it as somewhat of a Brectian construct to remind the audience, however subliminally, that they're watching a movie, a movie about specific themes that he *really* wants you to take note of (without actually beating you over the head with them).

    Again, might have just been the sound mix at Keystone at the time, but curious about whether you had a similar reaction, volume-of-soundtrack-wise to "Blood" as "Shutter."

    (btw: Absolutely love the work you've done post-Star)

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Chris.

    If this was directed by a hack, I would think he just let his music people run wild. Since it's a master like Scorsese, I have to think he was using the music as a device to do ... something. I just never could figure out what it was, and I don't think the audience will either, other than being aware of some very loud, very discordant music.

    With "Blood," Anderson used his screeching music during scenes without action -- i.e., the long shots of the oil derricks and the music itself was the center of what's going on.

    In "Shutter," these musical cues come during normal exposition scenes -- driving into the compound, etc. -- where music would usually be in the background. Rather than stirring the pot, the music plunges us into the pot.

    The effect, as I said, ends up being comical. It's almost like that "dramatic chipmunk" video on YouTube, accompanied by that those familiar, ridiculous chords: "Dum... dum... DAAAAAHHHHH!!"

  3. can someone tell me where I can find that Dum... Dum sound ??