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Shutter Island (2010)

by on 2011/11/11


“I don’t give a damn about by-the-book. I just want to know what’s going on.”

* *

Just as The Haunting (1963) was Robert Wise’s attempt at emulating a Val Lewton production (see 1942’s Cat People), so too is Shutter Island Martin Scorsese’s. This suggestion piqued my interest, especially as I appreciate Scorsese’s work. I admire his encyclopedic knowledge of cinematic history. I applaud his support of film preservation. I even have a great respect for many of his own creations (Taxi Driver). Sadly, however, this misfire isn’t one of them.

Set in 1954’s Boston, on an isolated island, Leonardo DiCaprio (Inception) stars as “the legend”, federal marshal Teddy Daniels. Along with his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), he’s investigating the escape of one of the patients, Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), from an asylum.

The investigation is immediately beset by innumerable setbacks, including resistance by the hospital staff, inclement weather, enigmatic evidence, and the possible deterioration of Daniels himself.

The cast is as promising as their director, including Patricia Clarkson (Whatever Works), Ben Kingsley (Species), Elias Koteas (Exotica), Max von Sydow (The Exorcist), Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain) . . . and yet I was haunted by the sense that I’d expected other actors. I kept assuming very specific people should appear, an expectation I’ve never had before. Where were Clancy Brown, Edward Burns, and Christopher Plummer?

An irrational impulse, perhaps, but not inappropriate for the experience.

In some cases, the existing players were not just unexpected, but confounding. Both Kingsley and DiCaprio boasted uneven, over-colourful accents. Furthermore, the script seemed overstuffed with curses and swearing. I have a problem with neither except when they’re superfluous and distracting . . . and the language didn’t help to evoke the Fifties/Lewton vibe.

I felt my mind was swimming in an unending flood of red herrings. How many ways can a tale and its teller signify delusion? Here’s a partial — partial! — list of observations from my notes: cloud images, dreams (and dreams within dreams), drunkenness, flashbacks, grief, guilt, hallucinations, headaches and migraines, inconsistencies, lobotomies, loneliness, mental illness, psychotropic substances, seasickness, secrets, shell-shock, third-person self-references, and unspoken communication.

I actually remarked aloud at one point how the nearly surreal barrage precluded an emotional connection. (Not in those exact words, mind you.) How might we sympathize with loss when that loss may not be real? It’s as if the story tried to hide its simplicity by overwhelming its audience. Perhaps we are meant to share the feeling of flirting with insanity.

Regardless, I began to fear “insanity” was an easy defense for carelessness. Sloppiness could be attributed to a character’s decline. “Hey! Was that fleeting glitch a continuity error or someone’s imagination?” Who can say? No apologies, no explanations. Let’s call it Art. The incoherence of absurdity resembles self-indulgence, though I’m willing to hope the production did its best.

Set designs are Escher-esque, with illusory effects. The unusual lighting, while not always successful, is often interesting. The camera — or editing — revels in whip-pans and sweeps. On occasion I thought the score recalled the music of classical rogue John Cage; in fact, I later learned it was Cage’s “Music for Marcel Duchamp”.

But as much as I respected the efforts of the audio-visualists, there wasn’t reason enough to make me glad I had sat through it. Shutter Island is an affair too smitten with its single climactic twist. Unfortunately, that moment will be a revelation to few, given the early, overt, and constant seeding of foreshadowing and clues. It takes well over two hours to reach what is obvious from the start. No amount of style could distract from such a waste of precious time.

* *

Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States)

137 minutes

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