Word around the stoney cooler is that Scorcese’s boy Leo had a chip on his shoulder coming into Shutter Island. He wanted to prove The Beach was a fluke and that he can, in fact, act well in movies set on islands. I’m convinced. So much so, in fact, that I’ve decided to consider Leo for a supporting role in my upcoming project, Island of the Apes. It’s a fresh spin on the time-honored Planet-of-the-Apes series. I’ve got a handshake agreement with Charleton Heston’s son Jimbo Heston to play the lead role. We’re still shopping for a director. Does anyone have Michael Bay’s email address? I thought I did, but I’m starting to suspect its a fake. He didn’t respond to any of the nude pictures I sent.
But enough about apes. You came here to read about two things: shutters and islands. This movie had plenty of both*!
*There was only one island, and no shutters that I can remember. Although, to be fair, I wasn’t really looking for them.
I liked Shutter Island about as much as I thought I would. Scorcese director, Dicaprio actor, Lehane writer. Predictably, this is a good movie. Really good, though not without its flaws.
The movie begins with Dicaprio, playing US Marshall Teddy Daniels, on a boat to Shutter Island. He and his new partner Chuck, played by the mediocre Mark Ruffalo*, have been sent there to investigate an escape from the mental hospital. The island is immediately identified as a place of ill-omen. It projects a sense of foreboding from the first glimpse. Its largely covered in forest, security measures are tight, and the guards seem very nervous. The mental hospital is for the criminally insane, and the escapee is considered dangerous. Everyone on the island is dangerous. That’s what the island is for.
*It seems like Ruffalo gets respect, and I don’t really understand that. I mean, he’s pretty bad, right? Not Paul Walker bad or anything, but I can always tell he’s acting, and a good actor will make you forget that. I guess it just doesn’t seem to me like Ruffalo is trying very hard. In this movie he was definitely outclassed by the actors around him.
It becomes apparent early on that we don’t know the whole story. Not with Leo, and not with the island itself. It feels like something funny is going on, and Dicaprio’s initial meeting with facility-head Dr. Cawley, played by Ben Kingsley, does nothing to dispel this feeling. It is apparent that Kingsley isn’t telling him everything. This becomes even more apparent later on, when Kingsley invites the marshalls to his house for a drink that evening.
This is my favorite scene in the movie. It features Max Von Sydow (!) as Kingsley’s colleague Dr. Naehring. Kingsley and Von Sydow really get it done in this scene. Their roles seem tailor-made to fit both of them as they guide Dicaprio’s character to some revealing character development. A couple of old pros on top of their game. Always nice to see. The antique look is also great: comfortable, luxurious study complete with fireplace, bookshelf-walls, high-backed chairs, crystal decanters, the whole nine yards. Tip-of-the-cap to Scorcese; this scene was perfect.
Other scenes are less than perfect. Specifically, Dicaprio’s dreams involving his dead wife, played by Michelle Williams. I’ve never bought her as a legit actress, and her look definitely doesn’t scream “1950s”. Maybe I’m being too hard on her here, she’s not a terrible actress or anything. But any period piece, even one set only 50 years ago, will benefit greatly from having actors that look like the stereotypical embodiment of that era. Williams, to me, didn’t look the part.
But more than that, I just thought the dream-scenes were kind of cheap. A widower is a sympathetic character, but for me it works better if the anguish is subtle, restrained. Not thrown at us in dream sequences where Dicaprio holds his dead wife and sobs that he “can’t let her go.” Grief over his wife’s death is what drives his character (and much of the plot), so it was definitely necessary to devote some time to his past with her. I just didn’t care for the way it was done. A little too in-your-face.
Another problem is the total reliance on Dicaprio’s character to carry the plot. Every movie has a main character, but it can get tiresome if that character has to be the focal point of every single scene. Shutter Island never takes a Leo-break, and after a while his angry, twitching face gets a bit tiresome. It isn’t that he does a bad job, its just that sometimes it felt like Dicaprio overload. He gets more screen-time than all the other characters combined. Again, there are elements of the plot that make this necessary, but I felt it could’ve been toned down a bit. The audience could’ve been made to understand that Leo was losing his grip on reality without so many close-ups of his “going crazy” face.
There are a few other minor complaints I could make, but none of them take too much away from what is ultimately a great plot. The storytelling is superb, with layers unfolding as the plot moves along. Scorcese doesn’t rush it, but he wasn’t gratuitous or overindulgent either. The pace of the story was exactly as it should have been. This probably has something to do with the movie being based on a book. Thats usually a pretty good place to start. When a movie is based on a book, you know the basic structure of a plot already exists. Granted, this is only the beginning, but it already puts the movie one step ahead of the Legions and From Paris With Loves of the world. The backbone of the story exists already, so there is less chance of embarrassing plot holes or useless filler. Shutter Island has neither.
I think I might need to start reading Dennis Lehane. I’ve been hesitant to due this because of a general lack of interest in the crime/mystery genre of literature, but there’s no denying his books make excellent movies. Mystic River and Gone, Baby Gone are both feature players in the Stoney Film Critic DVD collection. I don’t know if Shutter Island will quite make it there, but its in the same ballpark. What all three have in common is an ending you have to interpret for yourself. Not that its vague or ambiguous. Far from it. You know exactly how everything ends up, but you’re left to decide for yourself if the ending is good or bad, morally speaking. There are no cookie-cutter happy endings here. This can be hard for people to digest, but I’ve found it to be a refreshing nuance to Lehane’s work. I enjoyed pondering Shutter Island’s ending and figuring out how I felt about it. That was one of the highlights of the movie for me. It caps off a great story full of twists, turns, and fine acting performances*.
*Ruffalo and Williams may have been mediocre, but Dicaprio was solid and Ben Kingsley was great (as always). Throw in Von Sydow, a Jackie Earl Haley cameo and some good character acting for most of the small roles and the overall quality is pretty high.
I don’t know what was better, the movie itself or the fact that my ticket was free courtesy of my boy Baxter and his AMC gift card. I bought him some pretzel nuggets in return. They were terrible.
next week: Cop Out. I’m expecting this to be really bad, but I’m vaguely interested in it because I think the jig could finally be up for Kevin Smith. Hopefully Tracey Morgan will deliver a few good laughs.