Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Shutter Island

It's difficult to write about a thriller or mystery movie because nobody wants to be That Guy who reveals that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's Keyser Soze.  This presents me with a challenge: to ramble on at length without being That Guy.  I think I can manage that, but this is a mystery movie, so it has a twist.  That's as much of a spoiler as I'm going to give you.

Adapted from Dennis Lehane's best-selling book of the same name, Shutter Island has more than a few similarities to Lehane's Mystic River.  Boy, that Lehane has a tough life; a best-selling author who gets his books optioned into movies that are directed by some of the most talented directors in the world.  You would think he'd write happier tales.  Anyway, both Mystic River and Shutter Island are mysteries that rely heavily on their characters' secrets to reach their logical conclusion.

Here, we have Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), a US Marshall that volunteered for a case that would give him an excuse to poke around Shutter Island, a maximum security mental hospital for the criminally insane.  On the ferry ride to the island, Daniels meets his new partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), and they enter the facility together.  They are ostensibly there to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), a patient --- not a prisoner! --- that managed to escape the facility, despite a locked door, barred windows, no shoes, rugged terrain, and several guards stationed throughout the building.  That doesn't sound like an inside job at all, does it?  Rachel was incarcerated for drowning her three children.  The real reason for Daniels' visit is to learn the fate of Andrew Laeddis (Elias Koteas), the pyromaniac that burned down Daniels' home with his wife (Michelle Williams) inside.  Laeddis was assigned to the facility after going to jail, but his paper trail ended on Shutter Island...but no one admits to knowing him.  Once inside the facility, Daniels and Chuck meet Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), a practitioner of humane treatment for the mentally ill, and Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), a member of the old-school of psychiatric treatment that prefers lobotomy over patience.

From the start of the investigation, nothing goes Daniels' way.  The facility guards refuse him entrance while armed, so he has to give up his gun.  He asks for files that are clearly commonsense ways for him to get the essential information he needs, but he is blocked by the facility's bureaucracy at every turn.  He lost his cigarettes before the boat arrived at the island, and is forced to bum smokes from his new partner.  Orderlies and nurses are sarcastic and generally less than helpful.  The patients he interviews appear coached and seem afraid when he questions them about Andrew Laeddis.  When he faces the truth that the doctors are refusing to aid his case, Daniels can't even leave the island because a hurricane is on its way.  With nothing else to do, Daniels continues his investigation.  Clearly, there is some secret that is being covered up, and he is determined to discover that truth.  He eventually meets with an old informant (Jackie Earle Haley) that is now confined in the most violent ward of the facility, who seems to confirm Daniels' greatest fear; Daniels can uncover the truth behind the island and blow the lid off the whole conspiracy, or he can find out what happened to Andrew Laeddis.  He cannot do both.  The question is what is more important to Daniels: uncovering a terrible truth for the world to see, or finding (killing?) the man responsible for the death of his wife?

Martin Scorsese's direction really stands out in this film, particularly because of Daniels' dreams.  Daniels is suffering from a string of nightmares, hallucinations and waking dreams that are reminding him of his late wife and the Dachau concentration camp that he helped liberate in World War II.  In the dream world, identities are transposed, but the emotions are not.  Memories are shown, but they are spliced with his own subconscious.  At times, the imagery is a little trippy, like when his cigarette briefly smokes in reverse.  Other times, it is sad, as when his wife becomes ash in his arms while he professes his love for her.  And yet other times are the stuff of nightmares, with Holocaust children accusing him of not doing enough to save them.  Scorsese is given free reign to use a lot of symbolism in these scenes, and he throws a lot at the viewer.  In a lot of Scorsese films, he makes good use of camera angles and general cinematography to imply moods or hint at his characters' frame of mind.  He does that in Shutter Island, as well, but he has a lot more freedom to get creative, thanks to the dream scenes.

As far as acting goes, it is all pretty much above board.  Leonardo DiCaprio is consistently good, and working so frequently with Scorsese seems to have taught him the value of subtlety and nuance.  I'm not saying that he was ever an over-actor, but there are a lot of little things he does with his character that I appreciate, from the hunched shoulders and bold stance to the frequent (but not horribly obvious) reminders of his character's tendency for migraine headaches.  DiCaprio carries this movie on his own, but there are a lot of good supporting cast members that briefly pop up.  Mark Ruffalo does a pretty good job as the junior partner and his compassion shows through consistently.  Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow both play their parts well, but what else would you expect from two respected actors?  Ted Levine has a very brief, but frightening, cameo as the facility warden.  Jackie Earle Haley appears to be having a career renaissance playing disturbed characters, and that pleasant trend continues here with some of the more curious wound makeup I have seen in a while.  Michelle Williams was impressive in her small supporting role and was used effectively.  The rest of the cast (including Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer, and John Carroll Lynch) is good too, but perhaps not as attention-grabbing.

Even with good direction and good acting, a mystery movie can still be underwhelming if the mystery is no good.  I really liked the story in Shutter Island, even though I was not particularly surprised by the ending.  Normally, if I guess the ending to a mystery correctly, it bothers me a bit.  Here, though, Scorsese drops a lot of hints that flesh out the story and the characters.  While one side effect of those choices was a less than surprising answer to the mystery, it was also satisfying because the twist made sense.  You still might not guess the ending correctly (or, at least, not entirely correctly), but you won't feel as if the end came out of left field.  Since the movie spent so much time on Daniels' subconscious mind, the mystery really takes a back seat to that as the primary plot propeller.  As such, the surprise-worthiness of the ending turned out to be a lot less important than I thought it would be.

This is the sort of film that college students love to write about.  It has excellent direction with a lot of stylistic choices and meaningful symbolism and imagery.  After the movie, you can revisit scenes in your head (or just re-watch the scenes on your DVD) and pick out important details that you missed the first time through.  This is a movie that I expect to be better the second time I watch it because being fully informed of the story will allow me to understand many of the scenes from a different angle next time.  While I completely understand anyone who enjoyed the movie less because the mystery's answer was a little predictable, I thoroughly enjoyed the story, acting and the film as a whole the first time through, and look forward to a repeat viewing.  I may be a little artsy fartsy with movies sometimes, but I appreciate good craftsmanship when I see it.

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