The Best Movie Critic + review

Shutter Island by Martin Scorsese

Shutter Island is a movie made by movie people for movie people. Rather than coming across as some kind of dictatorial auteur, Martin Scorsese surrounds himself with ultra-competent movie craftsmen and women. There is not a weak link in the entire production. Everything from the sets to the costumes to the cinematography to the editing to the acting to the score is spot on, and every second of the movie highlights how much Scorsese appreciates the artistry and ingenuity of his crew. Seeing movie people do what they're good at is the number one reason to see the movie.

Shutter Island is not a perfect movie. It doesn't rank amongst Scorsese's best, though it may be among his most aesthetically beautiful. The problems with this production stem entirely from its labyrinthine plot. Shutter Island is an experimental asylum and treatment center for the insane that happens to be located on a remote island off the eastern seaboard. U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels – Leonardo DiCaprio in what may be his best role to date – comes to investigate the disappearance of one of the inmates, and soon discovers that nothing on Shutter Island is what it seems. The doctors and overseers (Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow amongst others) put on a facade of helpfulness that barely conceals their malevolence toward the detective. Daniels' new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) disappears mysteriously for brief periods of time. Soon after their arrival, a freak storm cuts off all communication and transportation with the mainland. Daniels has no one he can trust and no way out.

We soon discover, however, that Detective Daniels himself has a few skeletons in his closet. Even if he is the hero of our story, it becomes obvious that Teddy Daniels is deeply disturbed, and though we glimpse flashbacks to his experiences in World War II and with a past lover we are not entirely sure about their significance. If you haven't gotten the gist yet, there's not much in Shutter Island you can hang your hat on. Top all that off with some pretty wild speculation about anti-communist government conspiracies and malicious lobotomies and you're one smoke monster short of a Lost episode.

Strangely enough, the Lost comparison is apt. Critics of that show fear that in the end, the answers to its myriad mysteries will never live up to the mysteries themselves. There's nothing they could come up with that would satisfy every viewer's imagination. Shutter Island falls prey to this same frustration. Without giving too much away (you really should see the movie), Scorsese and Co. wrote themselves into a corner where the solution to their puzzle could never live up to the intrigue of the puzzle itself. The solution, as it were, is not trite or stupid. Far from it. I certainly couldn't have come up with anything better, and they manage to work it it a way that the twist becomes integral to the movie's overall themes and motifs. All the same, something is lacking, and the movie is never better than when its giving you a big, confusing headache but before it tells you why.

The saving grace of the ending, and what really makes Shutter Island a must-see in my book, is that Scorsese goes full on Tarantino, ripping off (homaging?) all his favorite movies. I was lucky enough to see this movie as a double feature with Scorsese's favorite movie (and one of my favorites, too), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes. Watching those two back to back really illuminated the clear, direct visual lifts in Shutter Island. Specifically, watch for the red shoes at the climax of each movie, and see how Scorsese's depiction of love tinged with regret is drawn directly out of The Red Shoes. He also lifts heavily from one of his other favorites, Robert Wise's The Haunting, using the dynamics of the asylum rooms and specifically the sculpture littered around the buildings to express what the protagonist can't. In an especially nice touch, the spiral staircase toward the end of Shutter Island manages to send up The Red Shoes and The Haunting simultaneously. One of Scorsese's other big influences, Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor, shares a similar plot with Shutter Island, and though I haven't seen that yet, I'd bet money there are some visual echoes from that one, too. I can certainly vouch that I'll be checking it out as soon as possible, so I'll let you know.

Magic Moment: The introduction to the hospital grounds is one of the best 'setting the geography' sequences I've seen. The dread and trepidation of the music, Thelma Schoonmaker's crisp editing, John Carroll Lynch's performance as the warden come together to inform, entice, frighten, and intrigue all at once. Robert Richardson's cinematography is simultaneously murky and fresh, and made me feel as if I knew what Shutter Island smelled like.

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Shutter Island by Martin Scorsese + review