Saturday, February 20, 2010

Shutter Island - Take 1

After seeing Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island for the first time, I  don't quite know what to make of the film - and in a way, that's a good thing.

If this review seems to have a "stream of consciousness" feel to it, that's very purposeful, because I'm  "thinking out loud" and hashing out my thoughts as they flow from me. And a stream of consciousness" style is actually very fitting for this movie.

As I type this, I'm thinking more about what the film is not, rather than what the film is.  It is not, as I first suspected, a commercial "thrill ride" like Cape Fear was. In that movie, Scorsese was having fun putting his particular visual stamp on Hollywood thriller conventions. Scorsese may be doing that again in form, but as Shutter Island unfolds, the effect is very, very different.

I've read some reviews that describe the movie as this explosion of technique, with Scorsese really going off the wall with visual and aural tricks, to sometimes overbearing effect. But that's not the impression the film made on me at all. Sure, it has its loud and flashy moments, but I was truly struck by how cerebral, how internal and insular the film was. The movie is a trip through the long, strange corridors of the mind. And even more unsettlingly, the mind is playing tricks on both its protagonist (Leonardo DiCaprio) and on the viewers.

Much has been made of Shutter Island's confounding plot, but those who say this is Scorsese in M. Night Shyamalan mode are drinking whatever Shyamalan drank when he made Lady in the Water. This is not Martin Scorsese's "twist" movie - far from it. It cuts much deeper than that. This haunting story cuts into the brain.

More than anything else, Shutter Island is a mind-fuck, pure and simple. Scorsese employs his virtuoso skills with deliberate precision and effect. It is truly and viscerally unnerving. Some say this is Scorsese's most Hitchcockian film, and there are touches of Hitch, but I found the mood more akin to the films of Val Lewton, a producer who made the most of his low budgets to unsettle audiences in movies like I Walked with a Zombie and the original Cat People. Scorsese obviously has more filmmaking tools in his arsenal,  but Shutter Island strikes the same eerie tones Lewton's movies did.

Still, this is a different Scorsese than I am accustomed to experiencing. His films often rush forward with a sense of nervous energy. His camera is often restless, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker's cuts crash with tension. Shutter Island only felt like that in fleeting moments. I was surprised by how meditative the overall mood was. The pacing is careful and deliberate as the director bends reality in multiple directions, aided by cinematographer Robert Richardson's astonishing tricks of the light.   I shifted in my seat multiple times, never being sure I could trust what I was seeing.

All told, Shutter Island may be the most psychological thriller I've ever seen, and if it has a flaw, it's that it appeals more to the head than to the heart. I was moved by DiCaprio's plight, but most often I was trying to wind my way through this film's cerebral puzzle, making it more emotionally austere than I would have liked.

Even so, seven hours after seeing the movie, I cannot get it out of my head. It has invaded my mind, and it's going to stay there for awhile - especially since I plan to see the film a second time on Sunday. Watch this space as I consider Shutter Island's second impression and write a second review. For the moment, though, it's definitely worth seeing at least once, to experience what may be the most mesmerizing film the director has made.

GRADE: Incomplete


David Allen said...

The very last scene seemed to me to be like "Basic Instinct," in which you think you finally figured out the mystery and then you're suddenly not sure any more. I haven't seen any critics point that out, but why were they headed towards the lighthouse at the end? Didn't look like a place where surgery would normally take place! Or is this just me?

Sir Critic said...

Dave - I saw the film a second time, and I don't think the film is necessarily suggesting that they're going to the lighthouse. Yes, that's the last shot, but the editing is the key here. If they were headed to the lighthouse, the camera might have tracked there, or there might have been a dissolve to it - but there is no dissolve. It's a hard cut to the lighthouse. What that signifies to me is that Teddy, knowing he has regressed, is succumbing to his worst fears - and the lighthouse, in his mind, represents his worst fears. It's rather a symbolic shot that Teddy is past the point of no return.

Anonymous said...

One of the things the book did that the movie did not was provide a more concrete reason why Teddy/Andrew held himself responsible, an action that was the result of his own character flaw, which made it more of a heartbreaker than the film did. I'd be curious to hear Scorcese talk about that filmmaking decision.

Allison Dickson said...

I almost wonder in that ending though whether Teddy had really regressed, or if he had decided that he had had enough. The way he shifted his eyes when he looked at the doctor for the last time, and the way he delivered that last line about living as a monster or dying as a good man sort of told me that he would rather not live with himself any longer with the knowledge of his actions, and that he'd rather just be done with it altogether.

Allison Dickson said...

Anon --

I agree, even though I didn't read the book, that I would like to have seen more of that point developed about his own role in the tragic events that unfolded with his wife and kids. They said he drank and stayed away, but I'm not sure if that was defined as well as it could have been. The case reminded me a lot of the real-life Andrea Yates murders (the clinically depressed and delusional woman who drowned her 5 kids, and whose husband knew she was ill and didn't do anything to help her).