June 30, 2011

Shutter Island

Somehow I missed seeing Shutter Island in theaters, where it must have been all the more exciting to experience. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a marshal who journeys, by ferry, to a foreboding island off the New England coast, called Shutter Island. On it is an ominous facility that functions as a lunatic asylum, run by the calm, collected, and creepy Dr. Cawley (played with stiff, serene menace by Ben Kingsley). DiCaprio, along with his partner (Mark Ruffalo), has come to help locate an escaped patient. The people on Shutter Island are totally deranged, so it's a dangerous situation. Director Martin Scorsese is intent on keeping you on edge from start to finish. However, I found myself almost completely relaxed. I enjoyed the plot and how it unraveled, and there were suspenseful moments, but there wasn't the unbearable tension and anticipation you might expect from a movie like this. At least, I didn't feel it.

Perhaps it's because from the word go I was expecting some kind of bizarre, shocking plot twist. We've--audiences--been conditioned to expect such things. I think modern audiences can look back to The Sixth Sense as the moment we were so embarrassingly (or pleasurably?) fooled by a movie. Of course, it's been done dozens of times before, but in recent movie memory that is the movie that stands out for sheer tom-foolery. Hitchcock did it with Psycho. More recently than that, Jonathan Demme did it at the end of The Silence of the Lambs.

Audiences these days seem to fancy themselves uber-sophisticated when it comes to figuring thrillers out before they reveal themselves to us, yet desperately in need of the kind of movie that takes us along for the ride and completely dupes us. Thrillers, in that sense, deliver the most visceral and exciting experience that we get from movies. We love stories because we love watching them unfold, and the suspense makes the work of an audience member akin to the work of a detective, fetching clues and trying to make guesses about the outcomes, the motivations, and the mysteries, of movies. This must offer at least a partial explanation for how well horror movies--even dumb ones--do at the box office.

A thriller is almost a sure thing as far as making money is concerned, especially if you can get Leonardo DiCaprio to star and Martin Scorsese to direct. Scorsese piles on the atmosphere here, and yet the movie has stark, rich colors to it, colors you don't typically find in a dark and eerie suspense yarn. He goes against that film noir dark-alley quality. Even the scenes in usually dimly lit places are disturbingly well-lit. DiCaprio lights a match that might as well be a spotlight. It never seems to burn out, either.

The opening shot looks obviously computer-generated, though, and that's one of the things modern movies struggle to fight. Filmmakers may save a lot of money to construct the scene virtually, but there's often a phoniness to the scene that floats to the surface, and you wonder how the actors can really trick themselves into believing they're on a real boat and a real ocean. But, for all that, the opening shot also retains a noirish quality, thanks mainly to the costumes. DiCaprio and Ruffalo wearing their hats and their trenchcoats look like two separate Dana Andrews in Laura. They're bound and determined to figure out the mystery that confronts them, but then the movie takes on a sort of Key Largo turn: a magnificent storm disarms the asylum's security system and the inmates start wandering about. All of them are homicidal maniacs (or very close), we're told.

If Shutter Island doesn't blow anyone out of the water, at least it's refreshing to see Scorsese making a movie that's just out to entertain you. He's not trying to do something important and Oscar-worthy like that awful mess The Aviator, or even The Departed, which finally got him what many considered a long-overdue Academy Award. The movie is a hallucinatory mess of a good time, nowhere near as bloated as the misfired Christopher Nolan movie Inception. It's just a crackling, old-fashioned thriller. From the novel by Dennis Lehane. The supporting cast is appropriately nightmarish: Max Von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, and John Carroll Lynch.

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