Thursday, July 29, 2010

No Man Is An Island

Well, this makes for a fascinating contrast.

After yesterday's film Salt, I rode overnight up to Anchorage and spent some of that time watching Martin Scorsese's film Shutter Island. While not an action film in the vein of Salt, and thus perhaps not subject to direct comparison, it's nonetheless another top director spending millions to tell an engrossing fictional story.

Based on a 2003 novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island is yet another example of a great film springing from a successful book. It tells of Boston-based Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) who, with his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), goes to a psychiatric facility for the criminally insane located on an isolated rocky island out in Boston harbor to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a dangerous patient. The previews for the film make it seem almost like a horror film, a supernatural thriller. But this isn't strictly correct, though there are many dream sequences which carry this unreal flavor. Still, the marshals make little headway with their missing persons case, and they find the psychiatric facility itself to be more and more mysterious the more they look.

I simply can't summarize any more than this without giving things away, but I was quite engrossed the whole time. I tend to watch a film such that I don't think ahead about what's likely to come; and so every unfolding of plot takes me quite by surprise. But in this case even I figured out what was going on--or I suspected I did--about 2/3 of the way thru the film, but my experience was in no way dampened by this. You think you understand what you're seeing, but you can't really be sure, and so we spend this two hours with various factions of the brain in a give-and-take, hoping first for this outcome and then that one.

From the opening shot Shutter Island seems dream-like in a Franz Kafka sort of way (I think Kafka is even mentioned toward the end of the film). Nobody is quite who they seem to be, and it's hard to get a grip on what's actually going on. This might be an irritant, except that it occurs here according to plan and in a very controlled fashion. At times things have an almost cartoonish appearance, with flat lighting and high color saturation. In the aftermath, I realize that Scorsese was bringing his own bag of filmmaker's tricks to the book's inherent mysteries, using tools intrinsic to the world of cinema to tell the story. This is no surprise, of course, that a great film director would take a written story and make it fully into a cinematic story. (I guess the question becomes whether he has overplayed his hand if I, Mr. Obtuse, kind of figured things out.)

It's DiCaprio's story, and he impresses again and again, covering quite a range of emotional ground. The other roles seemed well-nigh-brilliantly cast, especially Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow as the institution's psychiatrists. At first I was struck that some of the characters seemed not quite to squarely hit their mark at times--or maybe I should say that nobody except DiCaprio hit the right notes all the time. But in time I grasped that this was not an accident or an oversight.

Shutter Island contrasts with Salt in my mind in that the former is a purely character-driven story, with the camera lingering unapologetically on all the atmospheric details. The characters are shown closely, not fleetingly, with their facial expressions clearly visible. Both films keep the viewers in the dark to a degree, but while Salt does it by cinematic tricks, Shutter Island does it with writing, with story. To my mind, this is how it should be done.

Martin Scorsese is a national treasure. He's not my favorite director, but he has made a wonderful collection of films over the years. I was introduced to him via his American crime trilogy--Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Casino--but there have been so many others: Taxi Driver; Raging Bull; New York, New York; Gangs of New York; The Aviator; The Departed. These last three, and now Shutter Island, have starred DiCaprio, who is perhaps Scorsese's most fervent champion.

For me, the film worked brilliantly, though it's a two hour immersion to what is after all not a very pleasant world. As an exercise in story-telling, this one seems an unqualified success and another brilliant feather in Scorsese's cap. It's a worthy popularization of Lehane's book, and it's a film that will keep people talking for a long time to come.

Grade: A-


dbackdad said...

My folks watched this and highly recommended it to me. I have not seen it yet but have it in my Netflix queue. Your thumbs-up cinches it for me.

dbackdad said...

... and I'm sure I will love a movie with Max Von Sydow in it. He has an odd habit of showing up in an inordinate amount of my all-time fave movies. These aren't necessarily "great" movies, mind you. But they are among my favorites because I've watched them a million times and they had undeniable appeal at particular times of my life. The Exorcist, Strange Brew, Dune, and Minority Report.

wunelle said...

I'll look forward to your review!