Thursday, February 25, 2010

Shutter Island: Cast adrift

Shutter Island (2010) • View trailer for Shutter Island
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, violence, nudity and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.25.10
Buy DVD: Shutter Island • Buy Blu-Ray: Shutter Island [Blu-ray]

Shutter Island is a jittery, nerve-jangling riff on Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, by way of novelist Dennis Lehane's signature brand of menace and human depravity.

And when Lehane is involved  he also wrote the novels on which Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone were based  you can bet that children will be involved.
U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, right) and new partner
Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo, center) are immediately dissatisfied with the
information supplied by Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley); both detectives find the
psychiatrist too slick and much too condescending. The question, then,
revolves around what this unnaturally calm clinic head is hiding.

And not pleasantly.

Shutter Island is a period piece, set in 1954, and very much a product of its era. World War II remains a recent and highly disturbing memory, with reflexive suspicion directed toward German immigrants. Sen. Joseph McCarthy's red-baiting witch hunt and the House Un-American Activities Committee are uppermost on everybody's minds, as are fears about being vaporized by hydrogen bombs.

Against the paranoia of this Cold War backdrop, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are summoned to Ashecliffe Hospital, an isolated facility for the criminally insane located on Shutter Island, a rocky hiccup of land off the New England coast. (Filming actually took place on Peddocks Island, roughly 100 miles off Boston.)

The facility's directors, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Dr. Nauhring (Max von Sydow), have a disturbing problem: One of their patients  Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), a deranged woman who quietly drowned her three children, but even now believes that she and they are continuing their bucolic suburban lives  has disappeared from her cell. It's a classic locked room mystery: no way to get out, no way to get past several staffing and guard stations, and certainly no way to get off the island.

And yet she's gone.

Daniels, blessed with the sharpened awareness of a keen investigator, along with an intuitive ability to read people, senses hostility from the moment he and Chuck step off the only ferry that runs between Shutter Island and the mainland. The facility's armed guards are watchful and suspicious; the staff members, when gathered for interviews, are condescending and tolerantly amused.

Daniels knows they're lying to him, just as he knows that Rachel couldn't possibly have escaped ... at least, not without help.

And, truth be told, Daniels' presence at Ashecliffe Hospital isn't accidental. He has his own reasons for having taken this case: his belief that the facility is conducting illegal medical experiments on patients who, by definition, aren't in a position to raise a credible objection. Who listens to the ravings of the insane?

Finally, Daniels isn't without his own tormenting demons. His presence in the Allied platoon that liberated the Dachau concentration camp, during the waning days of the war, haunts him unmercifully. He's tortured by the fear that he should have been able to help save more of the Jewish prisoners.

He's similarly plagued by having been elsewhere, on the job, when his apartment building caught fire and claimed the lives of several tenants ... including his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams).

It's fair to say that Daniels has issues.

Director Martin Scorsese orchestrates this investigation in a manner designed to be supremely unsettling, every scene laced with the same oppressive dread that he brought to his 1991 remake of Cape Fear. The narrative flow may be much like Gregory Peck's uncertain probing in Spellbound, but the execution is a macabre blend of Edgar Allan Poe and early German Expressionist horror films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

The story also gets much of its juice from our modern knowledge of what went on in post-WWII psychiatric facilities: the barbaric, Kafkaesque nightmares of electro-shock therapy, insulin-induced comas, waterboarding and prefrontal lobotomies believed to "cure" everything from mental retardation and short-term depression to the rebellious streaks of free-spirited individuals  usually women  whose lifestyles offended mainstream mores.

Poe, had he lived in the mid-20th century, would have loved setting fresh stories in such surroundings.

Production designer Dante Ferretti's concept of Ashecliffe Hospital is as chilling and deranged as the facility's patients: a layout that places all male patients in one building, all female patients in a second, and the most dangerous  of both genders  in a third stone fortress.

We spend the film's first two acts waiting for Daniels to penetrate that third imposing ward, and, when revealed, it does not disappoint: a horror chamber of iron bars, elongated corridors and dank, claustrophobic cells on floors separated by a central, cage-like iron staircase.

Every one of Scorsese's directorial decisions is designed to heighten our own anxiety, just as Daniels  against his will  begins to succumb to the paranoia of Ashecliffe. Cinematographer Robert Richardson's lighting is alternately stark and clinical, and eerily gloomy: laced with deep shadows that could conceal ... anything. The camera movements are dreamlike and disturbing, with unexpected angles goosing a scene's intensity in the manner of 1950s film noir efforts.

The score is equally unsettling. Rather than compose a fresh soundtrack, music supervisor Robbie Robertson (still remembered from his days with The Band) blended jarring and often discordant pieces by Krzysztof Penderecki, Marcel Duchamp, Brian Eno and a dozen other composers known for their avant-garde tendencies. The result is a musical flow that never settles into a comfortable familiarity; it's as stark and disturbing as everything else in this film.


All this sensational production work is undercut by Laeta Kalogridis' screenplay, which tips its hand early  for viewers sharp enough to process the implications of a seemingly innocuous conversation  and thereafter turns into little more than a series of scenes showing DiCaprio's Daniels chasing something, or being chased by something.

Despite not having read the book, I sussed this story's "big reveal" 15 minutes in, and thereafter found the rest of the 138-minute film to be a long, grinding and needlessly drawn-out slog: a showcase of foreboding atmosphere that needlessly delays a climactic surprise that becomes increasingly obvious.

Despite Scorsese and Kalogridis' hopes, this ain't nearly as clever as Sixth Sense.

That said, DiCaprio acts up a storm  equivalent to the Category 5 hurricane that strikes Shutter Island in the midst of Daniels' investigation  and he persuasively nails every one of his character's nervous twitches and mental fugues. DiCaprio's little bits  a narrow-eyed double take as Daniels registers an obvious lie during an interview  are just as powerful as his most heartbreaking collapses, and rest assured: This story builds our hero to a crisis that no man should have to endure.

Kingsley, often prone to over-acting, makes a smoothly seductive "good guy" doctor; von Sydow is quietly ominous as the "bad guy" doctor. Ted Levine has a brief but telling scene as Ashecliffe's warden, and John Carroll Lynch is equally memorable as his deputy.

But nobody touches Jackie Earl Haley's cameo performance as an Ashecliffe inmate with a tie to Daniels' past. Haley's high-voltage encounter with DiCaprio, as the story builds to its climax, is the film's stand-out moment.

Ultimately, though, satisfaction with this film will depend on one's willingness to embrace the melodramatic atmosphere for its own sake, while not working too hard to deduce the puzzle. Scorsese is an encyclopedia of film, and he clearly designed Shutter Island to emulate classic film noir thrillers such as Otto Preminger's Laura, Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past, Edward Dmytryk's Crossfire and Jack Clayton's The Innocents ... along with half a dozen other films, all of which were screened for cast and production crew as work began on Shutter Island.

The question, then, is whether mood and homage are enough to make a movie.

Not in my case.

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