Saturday, July 31, 2010

Shutter Island... What a Twist!

Before I begin my review of Shutter Island I first have to make it perfectly clear that I am a huge fan of Martin Scorsese.  And it's not just because he's a phenomenal filmmaker who has consistently made high quality, relevent films for over four decades... well, actually it pretty much is because of that.  Scorsese is a living legend of biblical proportions and pretty much everything he does is a masterpiece.  I am totally biased whenever it comes to any of his projects, and as a commercial whore I would immediately buy any product that was even remotely attached to his name.  I once read somewhere that Martin Scorsese preferred Tampax brand tampons I went out and bought a year's supply.  Upon carefully rereading the article I realized that it was Lindsay Lohan who preferred Tampax (which, in retrospect, made more sense) so I burned everything I had bought and decided not to include Lohan when mailing out the latest chain letter I had recieved guaranteeing "lifelong happiness, contentment, intellectual fulfillment, and sexual virility."  The point is that no matter what Scorsese does now I am going to love it regardless.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Shutter Island is about Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), two "duly appointed" US Marshals called in to investigate the disappearance of an escaped mental patient from a facility for the criminally insane on a place called... you guessed it, Shutter Island.  The pair quickly discover that there is something more going on and not everything is as it seems.  The staff led by Dr.John Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley) as well as the inmates seem intent on derailing Daniels' investigation.  As he is drawn even deeper into the mystery of Shutter Island he becomes intent on revealing whatever terrible secrets are being kept hidden and must content with the storm of the century, escaped inmates, haunting flashbacks of his dead wife Dolores (Michelle Williams), and his increasingly tenuous grasp on sanity.

This movie just proves yet again why Martin Scorcese is the best at what he does, which is make movies.  He is a living legend and there are currently no new directors -with the exception of Chris Nolan- who are in the same league or on track to being in the same league as this guy.  He is a living legend and when he's gone Hollywood will lose at least half of its already-strained credibility.  Shutter Island is a perfect example of what holds a Scorcese picture together: the characters.  Without a doubt Scorcese is the best at carefully and exactingly examining a character, peeling him away layer by layer until his raw core is revealed to the audience.  I also heard he's not too bad at wakeboarding either. 

While Shutter Island is not Scorcese's best work it was still engaging cinema.  The whole premise is pretty freaky, and right away the audience is put on edge.  A mental institution for the criminally insane.  On an island with no contact with the mainland and no possible escape.  An escaped "patient."  From the beginning the mood and tone are set and remain consistent throughout the movie.  Everything blended together perfectly, including the odd reactions from the staff, the secrecy of the lead doctors and the fucked up residents of the Shutter Island institution.  Even the weather was cooperating as it always seemed to be either A) raining and blowing hurricane force winds or B) getting ready to rain and blow hurricane force winds.  I can't recall any sunlight at all, which I suppose is the point as the subject matter of this movie is not sunny in the least.

The plot of the film centers around Teddy Daniels' investigation of the missing patient Rachel Solondo and the implications it holds for what goes on at these facilities, but the movie itself is about the character of Daniels himself.  We find out pretty early on that Teddy's wife Dolores (finally a female alumnus from Dawson's Creek who can act and not just read lines and try to fuck up Batman Begins.  You know who you are (It's Katie Holmes.  Fuck she's terrible)). is dead and that he is still haunted by this death.  Also intercut with the main story are Teddy's flashbacks of his time in the war (good old WWII) specifically his memories of when he and his platoon were part of the emancipation of one of the concentration camps.  This coninuing thread plays itself out in a gripping and horrifying way that really ties in with Leo's corny final line of dialogue in the movie, which we will examine shortly.

Leonardo DiCaprio once again blows this one out of the park.  What I love about this guy's performances -this one included- is the intensity.  This whole movie is pretty intense, but a few scenes really stood out in my mind.  When he was investigating by himself in one of the cell blocks with the power off and has to question Jackie Earle Haley (you know, Rorschach) I was shitting my pants.  The other I suppose series of scenes is at the end when he "discovers" that he is actually a patient at Shutter Island and he slowly accepts "the truth".  SPOILERS APLENTY.  When he finally realizes that his wife snapped and drowned their kids and he ends up killing her, well, let's just say that there are only a handful of actors in Hollywood who could have pulled off that kind of performance (well) and Leo is one of them.  Michelle Williams, as I mentioned before, does a pretty good job herself and has kind of come out of left field in the past couple of years to establish herself as a reputable actress, unlike some other female leads from Dawson's Creek who have only proven that they have practically no acting talent whatsoever (a-hem, Katie Holmes).  Mark Ruffalo is always pretty solid despite his foray into chick flic territory, but ever since Zodiac he is a-OK with me.  While his part didn't require the same intensity as DiCaprio's, it did require certain nuances which Ruffalo handled excellently.  Also of note are the always fantastic Sir Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow as Dr. Jeremiah Naehring, an ex-Nazi scientist, and Buffalo Bill himself Ted Levine as the warden.  (Would you fuck him?  I'd fuck him.  I'd fuck him hard.)

Now while the movie's core was Teddy Daniels, it also explored some deeper, philosophical ideas.  Are Right and Wrong objective monoliths that sit on God's mantle and show's to dinner party guests on special occasions like Christmas or Chanukah or are they subjective principles that are unique to each situation?  How does one define reality (see: my Inception review)?  Who decides what is "sane" and what is "insane"?  It also explores the ethics of medical treatment as well as the nature of human interaction.  One of the key scenes to me was the eerie car ride with the warden and Daniels and their bizarre conversation about morality and the warden says something along the lines of "We wage war, we burn sacrifices we pillage and plunder and treat at the flesh of our brothers and why? Because God gave us violence to wage in his honor."  When Daniels responds by saying that "he thought God gave us moral order", the warden respons with "There is no moral orders as pure as this storm. There's no moral order at all. There's just this: can my violence conquer yours?"  To me that was really the core of the whole movie, the heart if you will, the anchor, the wind beneath its wings, the cinematic cockring.  It rang true in only the way a Scorcese-ism could, and it was presented in the format that Scorcese does best: dramatic monologue.

I should probably comment on the "twist" ending, because some chowder heads out there in cyberspace were probably complaining that it wasn't "twisty" enough or some such bullshit, but I don't think it was supposed to be a Shayamalan-esque twist.  I mean there were enough clues that it "gave away" the ending ie. the fact that Teddy Daniels is, in fact one of the inmates, (remember Andrew Laeddis) and is the subject of a radical procedure, a staged reality, to make him come to grips with the reality of what he had done ie. killed his wife.  I will tell you the reason this revelation wasn't a twist.  The reason this isn't a twist is because it's actually a funnel.  The whole movie Daniels is actually searching for Laeddis, who is actually himself.  So his figurative soul-searching is representing on-screen by an actual manhunt.  As the investigation proceeds, Daniels is brought closer and closer to becoming Laedus, from the medication he takes, to the clothes he wears, to the imaginary women he talks to.  So essentially, throughout the movie the realities of these two men are brought closer and closer together, until they meet and converge (the dudes are merging!) in the penultimate scene.

The final scene of Shutter Island, though, was the kicker.  DiCaprio exits on this really powerful yet extremely cheesy line: "Which would be worse: to live as a monster or to die as a good man?"  It's an interesting quandary, however in Teddy's case the point is moot: he's already done both.  It could be argued (quite persuasively given the time, resources and willpower to do so) that Daniels/Laeddis actually died during that fateful day at the concentration camp when he both witnessed and performed terrible deeds.  That's the kind of shit you don't come back from, metaphysically speaking.  And ever since that day, even before he killed his wife he was a monster.  He wasn't a monster of his own making, and in the same circumstances many of us would do the same thing he did.  And that's the point.  Daniels did not become a monster by choice or because of any internal defect: it was his involvement in one of the most horrifying and most deadly chapters of human history AKA World War II.  This was what the warden was talking about: the tension between human nature (violence) and human ideals (morals).  What happens when those two forces are put into opposition can tear a person apart.  The question isn't if it's better to live as a monster, it's how to live as both a monster and a good man at the same time because war makes monsters of men.

Alright, time for the final verdict.  Shutter Island was a great film, but definitely not Scorcese's best.  That being said, I give this movie an 8.5/10 = One Badly Beaten Criminally Insane Head Illuminated by a Match


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