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Philly2Philly Movie Review: Shutter Island

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Shutter Island is the kind of movie that makes for good water cooler conversation at the office. “What did you think about the ending?” “Did you seeShutter Island that twist coming?” “Why does Leo look so old?” Yes, all of these thoughts and more likely to emerge in a discussion about Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese’s latest mind flick. Truth is, any movie that causes that kind of conversation more or less warrants it, but can the film stand on its own merits otherwise?

Shutter Island is a marked return to the thriller genre for Scorsese, who is clearly evoking some Cape Fear  esque techniques here. The film is essentially a haunted house tale reworked and twisted into more than knots than a Bavarian pretzel. The goal is to confuse the audience repeatedly until they are unsure who is sane, insane, real, or imaginary. On that level it works effectively.

The story begins with Federal Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), standing on the dock of a ferry that’s taking him to an asylum on Shutter Island, off the coast of Boston. He is accompanied by a new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), apparently a novice to the force. The reason for the journey is that a mental patient in the asylum has vanished within the last 24 hours. What’s strange though is that the woman’s cell shows absolutely no signs of escape or damage. It’s as if she’s vanished into thin air.

Once on the island, Teddy meets Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), the head of the hospital who is very reluctant to release patient records and allow hospital staff to be interviewed. That type of suspicious behavior seems to permeate the asylum, everyone unwilling to talk or reveal information. This leads Teddy to suspect a conspiracy, one that he must uncover.

Meanwhile, the asylum seems to be getting the best of him, resulting in extreme migraines and vivid nightmares of his wife’s death and his service in WW2 Germany. These hallucinations grow stronger each day, and with a hurricane like storm outside, Teddy slowly feels caged and swallowed by the asylum and its secrets. During this time he also reveals his own hidden motive, one involving the man who is responsible for his wife’s death, rumored to be locked up in building C, the institutions most dangerous wing.

Shutter Island builds very slowly to a twist that many may see coming from the beginning of the film. It’s hardly original and a trick that’s been used again and again over the last ten years. The journey to that revelation is a stunning one nonetheless. Filled with escalating tension, nightmarish imagery, and enough perplexing evidence to make the audience question whether anything is real, Scorsese weaves a mind-bending web of doom expertly.

Sadly, the only thing people are going to be talking about is the big reveal, and that is likely to divide mainstream audiences, more or less disappointing most of them. The problems with the climax mostly fall upon the script, though Scorsese doesn’t emerge unscathed. Without giving too much away, it can be said that the twist doesn’t feel so much like a cheap cop out, and that’s the good part. It’s layered and executed with enough craft and care to make it relevant. However, it’s also over explained to the point of exhaustion, creating a feeling or boredom and pretentiousness which dilute the tragic intentions. There are also parts of it that render the film completely impractical and would require a large suspension of disbelief on the audience’s part.

The acting is fairly good across the board. DiCaprio is to Scorsese as Depp is to Burton, and true to form, DiCaprio is once again playing on those men on the edge. He could play the caged animal character in his sleep, but it works just fine here, a bit more subdued than usual. Ruffalo is decent but forgettable as a supportable player. Elsewhere, it’s the little performances such as Elias Koteas  brief but terrifying cameo as an asylum maniac, and Patricia Clarkson  as an escapee, that bear the most impact.

Ultimately, Shutter Island remains an intriguing, beautiful looking film that falls short of reaching any level of greatness. Despite that, this is still a powerful, well orchestrated, disturbing, and occasionally moving foray into the darkness of the human mind. Just watch out for that ending.

Contact Jim Teti at itetmij@gmail.com

Photo Credit: Paramount