Monday, February 22, 2010

Colin's 2010 Movies #2: Shutter Island

I wanted to like this movie a lot more than I did. From a technical standpoint Martin Scorsese does a phenomenal job crafting a creepy, foreboding, 1954 period atmosphere around Ashecliffe, the island-bound asylum for the criminally insane where two federal marshals are called to investigate the disappearance of a patient. Leonardo DiCaprio also does a great job portraying the driven, haunted marshal Teddy Daniels, whose wife died in a fire caused by an arsonist (Elias Koteas in a brief but memorably slimy cameo) who may or may not have been committed to Ashecliffe. Teddy must uncover the truth of what goes on at Ashecliffe while coping with vivid dreams of his dead wife and his wartime experiences liberating Dachau from the Nazis.

The problem lies with the ending. Certain twist endings need to be banned. After being used over and over, there’s just no way they can be surprising or compelling any more. Shutter Island’s third act reveal is one that most people could probably guess at from the trailer and once you get there, it’s hard not to feel disappointed that it’s all the story amounts to.

It’s a shame because the film has so much else going for it. It looks absolutely beautiful especially the overhead shots of the storm-beaten, dreary island, and there are lots of clever editing tricks used to heighten the tension, like the continuity of a person’s movement or expression being jarringly mismatched between shots, and shots that seem to last a little too long or too short before cutting. It manages to make everything subtly unnerving.

While Shutter Island is less of a horror film than the trailers seemed to suggest there are a few impressively creepy sequences, the standout being a trip through Ashecliffe’s ward C, a medieval dungeon-like fortress reserved for the most violent inmates, filled with dripping water and dark stone passageways. I wanted the film to spend more time there.

There’s no faulting the acting either, with Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow playing the eerily polite but infuriatingly unhelpful psychiatrists running the facility, and Jackie Earle Haley in another neat cameo as a badly beaten up psychopath. DiCaprio really sells the emotional impact of the story, keeping us grounded in Teddy’s increasing paranoia and grief-stricken memories.

When it was all over, everything Shutter Island did right just increased my disappointment. All the talent on display made me wish it was in service of a better story. Other reviews I’ve read have been willing to look past the script’s predictability and just enjoy the brilliant filmmaking technique at work but for me it just wasn’t enough to justify trotting out that lame twist for the umpteen thousandth time.

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