Sunday, December 5, 2010

Shutter Island

Written by Joe the Revelator

Another Loony Bin

The trend of using the insane asylum as a dramatic staging element has certainly seen its day, both in cinema and in novels. Horror movies, thrillers, even lighthearted comedies dip frequently into the emotional pool that is the mental hospital, almost like a card that gets drawn intermittently during the screenwriter’s madlib. It was the Federal Marshal, in the asylum, with the revolver. Martin Scorsese, writer and director of films like Casino and The Departed, puts these pieces together in just the right way.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Teddy Daniels, a federal marshal in the mid 1950’s, following the trail of an arson case that brings him inexorably to the island mental institution; the occupants of which are all brutally violent offenders with deeply disturbed histories. Joined by a new partner played by Mark Ruffalo, it isn’t long before the marshal’s investigation gets spun on its head, with twists and revelations at every gruesome clue they stumble upon.

And there are so many clues... They practically drip from the screen. Subtle hints to the plot’s darker designs are flashed at the viewer with the rapidity of a high-speed camera. Conspicuously placed objects appear and disappear, sometimes seeming like inconsistencies in production. Key lines of dialogue are repeated, subtly echoing a madman’s ramblings. However enlightening the pieces may seem though- however shocking the protagonist’s dreams and visions become, they yet remain elusive. Unlike many thrillers that try to straddle the line between mysterious and shyly revealing only to blow the ending long before the climax, Shutter Island leaves enough of the puzzle pieces in the box to make the final twist impressive and surprising.

The soundtrack of the movie stands out remarkably, almost distracting at first with how bold its strings are. Their initial approach during the island ferry scene shakes from the foreboding score. It smooths itself out though, and blends into the scenes after those initial tooth-rattling shocks, setting a melancholy mood with classical-sounding airs that drive the audience through Teddy’s broken flashbacks.

Not since Jacob’s Ladder has there been a movie with such powerful visions of delving into a maddened mind, brief as those glimpses may be. Marshal Teddy embraces a sodden trembling woman while ashes rain down around them, her back impossibly seared to the bone like a blackened fireplace log. Allied soldiers stalk through the rail yards of a Nazi concentration camp, past mounds of bodies frozen into macabre human statues mid-winter. Nothing lasts long enough to desensitize the viewer. Each psychotic ‘episode’ serves to punctuate the story without dragging it out into long grotesque sequences.

Rough Waters Abound:

At risk of spoiling too much I’ll simply say that Shutter Island is not a passive watch. With today’s ADD audience it may seem to drag at times and lurch at others, building up to a tragically charged finale. But if you can remain patient and perceptive, trusty notebook and ballpoint pen in hand, you may catch a masterful story unraveling under the surface.

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