Sunday, April 11, 2010

575 - Shutter Island review



U.S. marshal Teddy Daniels, the hero of Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” is a man ravaged by the memories of war and personal trauma. He’s said to be a man of violence, not because he likes it, but because it’s in his nature.

It’s with this in mind that Scorsese and his team crafted the startling visuals of “Shutter Island,” a psycho-drama throwback to 40’s film noir and Hitchcockain thrillers about hard men whose minds broke under pressure.

The film is set in 1954 on the titular New England island, a remarkably inhospitable rock that houses a mental institution exclusively populated by the violently insane. Teddy and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) arrive to investigate the disappearance of a murderous patient. The institution itself is a study in the foreboding, an impeccably manicured complex with a literal fortress serving to house the worst residents. The camp’s offices are formal, Gothic settings, spotless and beautiful until contrasted with Teddy’s memory of another such space at Dachau. The institution’s labyrinthine prison corridors are bathed in darkness and storm water, a filthy dungeon that, like the offices, doesn’t look entirely dissimilar to the concentration camp Teddy helped liberate nine years prior.

Things are a bit off. Dr. Crawley (Ben Kingsley), the head psychiatrist, will answer their questions, as long as the answers can’t be of any use. Medical records are inexplicably unavailable, and the entire staff always stops just short of being helpful. It’s to be expected that the patients are of little use, but Teddy’s instincts are sharp, and he senses a great evil at work. A hurricane slams into the island as the investigation gains steam, casting literal clouds over an already bleak scenario. What’s going on, who can be trusted, and mostly importantly, why?

The story, based a novel by Dennis Lehane, plunges Teddy deep into a bleak environment where one’s sanity flickers like a candle by an open window. Scorsese allows the tension to build without release, with danger lurking behind every utterance. Teddy can’t get to the root of what’s sinister here; he has ideas that come in and out of focus, stretching in all directions, but there’s a liquid quality to the place that makes the truth elusive.

Scorsese screened “Vertigo” for the actors before shooting, and in “Shutter Island” he demonstrates an empathy for the shattered mind as it fits into the framework of a thriller. Like Hitchcock, Scorsese appreciates the effect of trauma on the mind and the service that unresolved tension does a thriller, though he’s less a formalist, just as interested in the psyche as he is what comes from it. Teddy’s experiences are never out of sight, and we glimpse his nightmares as bloody, melancholy visions where his late wife (Michelle Williams) presents ominous clues to the truth. These scenes, with their gruesome wounds and eeries, haunting imagery, set the stage for the finale, which occurs in a desolate lighthouse where all the secrets are unspooled.

The film’s concluding notes are difficult ones to take in, and might render a second viewing difficult. It makes sense, yes, but is it good sense? Perhaps this can be what it’s like to lose one’s mind, to experience a collage of events damning, eerie, paranoid, and even enthralling.

3.5 out of 5

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