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Review: Shutter Island

22nd March 2010

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Tense and suspenseful throughout, Scorsese's latest film evokes the deep fear in all of us as it takes us on a perilous journey through the consideration of insanity. shutter island

The island in the title is a remote prison for the criminally insane. Approaching on a gloomy tug-boat are US Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo).

Set in the mid-fifties, the two Marshalls have been sent to the island to investigate the disappearance of one of the inmates from the asylum there child murderer (Emily Mortimer) who just vanished.

All the staff appear tight-lipped, and the mysterious charm of the senior psychiatrist, Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley), does not help matters.
Teddy quickly realises the disappearance is harder to figure than it looks. And the deeper he delves, the more complex it becomes.
The film is, essentially, a sensual journey. Everything in this is made to evoke thought to make the viewer question.

This has its moments and pitfalls. Initially, the film seems confusing. We first see Teddy approach the island; then approach the asylum; then we see bits from his time in World War Two.

While it all fits in the end, there is a lot of concentration involved to piece it together along the way.

This is a good thing, of course. A film that makes you think is better than one which thinks for you. But to be consistently asking "Why?" before being blind-sided by an ending is not, in my view, a flowing experience.

With that said, what Scorsese does here is engrave the feelings of the characters upon you. Teddy questions his sanity and by the end you do also. There are not many directors who can act not just as a storyteller, but as a pathway into the minds of those involved.

Scorsese's depiction of the characters, and general command of the screen, is faultless. Every shot is clear, precise and toned, with subtle greys taking priority for the most part, but amplified vivid contrasts for the action.

The film has a rather gothic feel partly based on the fact that the novel upon which it was based, by Dennis Lehane, emanates that same atmosphere.

Teddy and his partner are innocent sounding characters who have been placed inside the foreboding, horrific setting of an asylum which has come straight from gothic literature.

Elements of the film dip into the horror genre, while others swim in well-crafted drama. Flashbacks from Teddy's life deepen the story even more, adding a particular element of film noir to the picture.

The whole thing comes together to make a visually impressive if rather ambiguous adventure.

DiCaprio cannot be criticised either. From someone who found stardom at the hands of James Cameron's Titanic, DiCaprio has bloomed into one of the finest actors today. In fact, I would rate his performance here and in Revolutionary Road as his finest.

Yet somehow, the film seems like a giant cliche, a nostalgic, tired journey in terms of style and storytelling.

The set-pieces were detailed and bold. But I found the whole thing to feel false. I could not attach to the film on the whole. The visuals draw you in; the characterisation is compelling; but the film lacks a sense of originality.

The landscape is incredibly detailed, with every shot orchestrated to tap into your deepest fears. But, at times, the scenes seem to be just one more cliche in the cogs of production the mental institution which looks like a haunted house; the remote island which evokes comparison to King Kong; the brooding musical score which sounds like it has come straight from a theme park ride. All these techniques fail to impress and appear to be run-of-the-mill.

Without giving too much away, the nature of the plot itself leads to confusion and ambiguity. But even after the credits had rolled, I still did not quite believe what I had seen. It still did not 'connect' with any emotion.

And that is the one problem with this film. It is a great film trying to be a better one.

A great film will flow through its meticulous construction, detailing every scene with aesthetic beauty, and will provide an experience which is good enough.

But an excellent film feels excellent and will involve you in its experience, without having to try and invite you in.

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