“Shutter Island:” Of Silence and Stars

“Shutter Island” will draw immediate comparison and parallels with some of Alfred Hitchcock’s best works. They are all deserved. It should be a formality after this picture that Director Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio are the best tandem of the kind perhaps since the Oscar-Winning film maker paired with DeNiro. This is unlike any film made by Scorsese. The intensity of his past pictures is present but this is something more sinister and devious. I hesitate to call this a horror film but it sure feels like one, a great one that is. DiCaprio presents us one man’s tortured and battered psyche as U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels. Very few can do what he does which is why he may be the best working actor of his generation. I hate to pick favorites but I’m gleefully biased at the moment.

Set in the fifties in the midst of shadowy Cold-War two U.S. Marshall are sent to Shutter Island (off the cost of Boston) to investigate the disappearance of violent patient Rachel Solando. How violent? She murdered her three children. Daniels partner is the grounded Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). They’ve never worked together before. Upon arriving on the island, which thankfully is not subject to shoddy CGI but rather impressive imagery, the Marshalls are introduced to Professor Cawley (Ben Kingsley). He runs the facility and seems to be carefully managing all its’ hidden nuances as well. Obviously in a film like this there is more than the surface level. The Marshalls find it odd that the staff seems very willing to accept that Solando could have just slipped out of her cell and dodged her way around such a guarded fortress all alone. It is in fact a fortress that was once used in the Civil War. There is a certain ward that houses the most violent offenders that sort of takes on its’ own identity in this film. As Daniels and Aule scamper around the island looking for any sign of their phantom Teddy reveals that not only does he have a personal interest in the island but that ghastly things seem to be going on right under the noses of those on the mainland.

The protagonist here has quite the back-story. He served in WWII and took part in liberating Dachau. The images of the camp in his dreams hold some of the most haunting things ever put on a film reel. “You’re a man of violence” says Dr. Cawley’s German associate (Max Von Sydow) to Teddy. Teddy takes offense before the man says “Well I never said you were a violent man.” In a place with so much to hide Teddy can’t see the answers are walking all around him. He is reasonably distracted. His wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) died when their apartment burned down and Teddy can’t seem to stop seeing her all around. In his dreams, perhaps I should start calling them nightmares, Dolores tells him things he should be listening to very carefully. He doesn’t pay enough attention. In that realm she is real and he doesn’t want her to go.

What a classy cast. Kingsley is outstanding as a shrewd and dangerous man ruling the place he so diligently created. The always underappreciated Ruffalo is an outstanding supporting player. We’d like to suspect him but Chuck just seems too normal. He’s not on the same wavelength as Teddy. The three women in the cast are utterly phenomenal in limited roles. Emily Mortimer has a scarce role but it is the best one note performance I’ve seen in awhile. Patricia Clarkson appears as a doctor on the run from the island’s deadly practices. She commands our attention as she bluntly provides Teddy a first-hand account of what may really be going on. Lastly there is Michelle Williams as the ghost of Dolores. She appears only in Daniels dreams but she is very haunting as a woman who we know nothing about until we need to. Credit should also go to Ted Levine in his few scenes as the intimidating warden.

This film is 100% rooted in suspense. It scares us by telling its’ story. There is not a single cheap scare in the picture which is probably the most credit I could give to today’s horror films. Scorsese doesn’t want to scare us so much as he wants to paint a horrifying picture. He ratchets the tension and suspense factor to unbearable levels. Silence sometimes is the scariest part of a film. We wait and wait for our fears to reveal themselves. All the while we sit wide-eyed with a thousand different ideas of what could be. I suppose I am at an advantage that many will not be. I read Dennis Lehane’s superb novel of which the film is taken from. Not a single crucial detail is omitted. It’s really something to say that I knew what was coming yet still noticed my heart beating faster and faster each minute. Production values here are of the highest order. The island looks fantastic as it is being beaten apart by a violent storm. Its jagged cliffs and dense forests set a cluttered and ominous mood. The score is the best I’ve heard since James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer teamed up for “The Dark Knight.” It evokes the air of film noir while making us sweat bullets.

The teaming of DiCaprio and Scorsese is in full force. Leonardo has come a long way. The story unfolds around him hanging on his every word and hoping he can steer it to a solution. Like his performance in “Blood Diamond” we want him to come out victorious yet can help but be scared and intimidated by him for some reason. An Oscar nomination is in order. Scorsese is the perfect director. Like few others can, he imprints himself onto the picture. Certain scenes hang around longer than expected and the camera takes peculiar angles so he can show just what a scene may mean. It’s not a stretch to call him the best.

I have a feeling the end of the film will catch on. It has a Hitchcock-ian feel. It’s so absolute yet so reasonable it lifts parts of the film that could seem to lag behind others. In films like these everything means something. Every character is mirroring the film’s conclusion even if a few don’t seem to get it. It’s a rare and exciting when a film disarms and scares me like this one did. This is easily the year’s best film thus far and it is the first great picture of the decade. It’s all at once terrifying, engrossing, tragic, interesting and shocking. Bravo.

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