Thursday, February 18, 2010

Film review: Scorsese visits 'Shutter Island' with campy flair

Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo DiCaprio in Shutter Island.

By Hap Erstein

If you accept the premise that all moviemaking is viewer manipulation and you are willing to put yourself in the hands of a master manipulator like Martin Scorsese, then there is plenty to enjoy watching the loopy, melodramatic Shutter Island.

On the other hand, if you insist on clarity and loose ends neatly tied, this will only be an exercise in frustration for you.

Put me firmly in the former camp. With an emphasis on “camp.”

Now that his Oscar win for The Departed has taken the pressure off director Scorsese to make films for posterity, he has made one for the sheer pleasure of the hairpin-turn ride. Of all of his films, Shutter Island is probably most closely related to the tense jolts of his 1991 remake of Cape Fear, but the movie it more reminded me of was the preposterous potboiler Identity (2003), with its extreme narrative left turn two-thirds of the way through the film.

Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone) set in 1954, Shutter Island is one of those films that the less you know about it going in, the better. But let me attempt a description in purposely vague terms.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Scorsese’s go-to guy since Gangs of New York 18 years ago, plays federal marshal Teddy Daniels, assigned to investigate the disappearance of a patient/prisoner at Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, located on an Alcatraz-like fortress island in Boston Harbor. Partnered with him is a relatively new, but older marshal, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo).

From the opening artificial process shots on the ferry out to the island, Scorsese seems to be signaling us that some, all or none of this may actually be happening. Once at the hospital, the feds meet button-down hospital administrator Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and his German shrink sidekick, Dr. Nearing (Max von Sydow), who both make it clear that any cooperation on the case comes only begrudgingly.

Teddy, who spent the ferry ride heaving in the head, is haunted by memories of his dead wife (Michelle Williams), who died in an apartment fire, and of the stacks of corpses he saw at the end of World War II while helping to liberate the Dachau death camp. Scorsese conjures up these memories in nightmarish, technically impressive images throughout the film.

Still, such tangents are woven into the film without regard to subtlety, and the same could be said for the destructive hurricane that suddenly crops up on the island or the classical music that refuses to stay in the background, supervised by Robbie Robertson.

If the effect is that of a B-movie from the period, that is entirely intentional on Scorsese’s part, although executed with panache thanks to more contemporary technology and the director’s skilled camera moves.

Shutter Island is elevated further by an A-list of supporting actors. Emily Mortimer smolders playing the missing patient, Rachel Solando, convicted of killing her three children. It is a role she shares -- don’t ask -- with Patricia Clarkson, seen in a brief, but pivotal scene in a cave hide-out near the island’s shear rock cliffs. Also impressive in short appearances are Jackie Earle Haley as a physically abused patient and Robin Bartlett as an interviewed patient with a twinkle of craziness in her eyes.

Ultimately, Shutter Island is just a popcorn movie, a couple of hours of flashy filmmaking for its own sake. But Scorsese demonstrates that he can deliver on that level and do so with mischievous flair.

SHUTTER ISLAND. Director: Martin Scorsese; Studio: Paramount Pictures; Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Max von Sydow, Sir Ben Kingsley, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Michele Williams, Jackie Earle Haley. Rated: R; Opens: Friday. Venue: Most commercial houses

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