The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Shutter Island

When a big budget movie comes out and I find out it's based on a book, I typically try to read the book first before seeing the movie.  It isn't a hard and fast rule, but it always helps when I've heard of the author or know the book is held in high regard.  For that reason, it took me a month and a half to see Shutter Island in theaters.  When I saw previews for a thriller from director Martin Scorsese, I was hooked, but I paused when I heard it is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane and features quite a twist.  My thinking has always been with books/movies, if I'm going to be surprised, I'd rather be surprised by a book.  

After reading the book, I can say the twist worked very effectively and I never saw it coming.  In a way, seeing the movie after finishing Lehane's novel almost made the theater viewing feel like a second time around.  Scorsese sticks extremely closely to the storyline with a few small exceptions and one MAJOR exception, but on the whole, the highly respected director more than treats the subject matter with respect.  As for the twist, knowing it going into the movie certainly influences the viewing.  No two ways about it, this is a good twist.  Hints are dropped left and right, but they are incidental moments that mean nothing without the knowledge.  It's not a twist for the sake of having a twist, instead providing a moving and surprising ending.

It's 1954 and U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Scorsese favorite Leonardo DiCaprio) has been teamed up with a new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), on a strange investigation.  In Boston Harbor on a small island called Shutter Island, a violent criminal escapes from her cell at Ashecliffe Mental Hospital.  Daniels and Aule are called in to investigate the escape which as the evidence is revealed seems more and more like a disappearance.  Nothing adds up concerning the escape, and the head physician, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) seems to be hiding something.  Nothing on the island is what it's supposed to be, and Daniels and Aule begin to wonder what they've gotten themselves into.

Several reviews I've read said Scorsese's newest movie has some Hitchcockian cues, and I'd be hard pressed to argue that, especially making some comparisons to Vertigo.  I think the closest thing you can compare Shutter Island to is Scorsese's remake of Cape Fear, but even then, it's a loose comparison.  The director has created a visually stunning movie here, full of doom and gloom on this island out in Boston Harbor.  The cinematography is beautiful in a dark, terrifying sort of way, a foreboding that everything is not quite right.  Lots of play with dark and light, shadows and smoke make the story uncomfortable to watch at times like a good thriller should.

However, after watching the trailer, reading the book, and now having seen the movie, I think it was marketed wrong.  It's advertised as a scary movie, but it really isn't.  Sure, there's some 'Gotcha!' moments, but as a whole, it's a moody, dialogue-driven movie.  The creepiest parts of the movie by far are the flashbacks and dream sequences as Teddy deals with some demons from his past as he investigates this peculiar case.  The island setting contributes to this because as the marshals begin to uncover things there's no place to go, they're trapped and at the mercy of the hospital's staff.  That feeling of claustrophobia just adds and builds on this sense of doom that starts from the opening shot and never really lets up.  Kudos to the soundtrack (can't find a composer) that at times is loud and ominous at times, and quiet and soothing at others.

Early in his career, Scorsese's favorite actor was Robert De Niro, but now DiCaprio has stepped into the spotlight as the favorite.  I loved him in The Departed, and here he even continues on with that Boston accent.  Other than that, it's a great performance.  His Teddy Daniels is a man who's good at what he does, but sometimes at a cost.  His mental stability is questioned because of his past when his wife died in a fire started by an arsonist.  The character is basically the viewer, trying to piece things together as they're presented.  DiCaprio hasn't made a ton of movies for being such a huge star, but this quickly climbs to the top of the list in my opinion.

With a Scorsese movie though, one star wouldn't be enough, and here his supporting cast is pitch perfect.  Ruffalo gets the workmanlike role as the new partner trying to keep up with Teddy's investigation.  It's a thankless part, but he's rewarded in the end.  Kingsley matches DiCaprio step for step as Dr. Cawley, the head physician at Ashecliffe in a role that keeps you guessing.  What's he really up to?  He is steering the marshals away from something or steering them where he wants them to be?  A consummate pro like Kingsley handles it with ease in a part that I hope gets him some Oscar buzz for best supporting actor.  Michelle Williams plays Dolores, Teddy's dead wife who he still sees in his dreams in a very moving part.  If that trio wasn't enough, add Max von Sydow, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Elias Koteas, Ted Levine, Emily Mortimer and John Carroll Lynch.  Other than von Sydow, none of those mentioned are in more than a scene or two, but they all bring their A-game with their brief appearances.  Audiences may have issue with the movie, but it's not because of the cast.

I go back and forth with movies with a twist, but when handled well I have no issue with them.  This is clearly one handled well.  It's the type of story that leaves you confused and questioning everything you saw and will almost certainly make a second viewing almost mandatory to see all the clues and hints.  Even knowing it's coming in the movie, it still surprised me because it is handled so well.  The reveal is by far the best scene in the movie and the most powerful/emotional too.  Scorsese did make one addition -- the movie's final line -- which I thought was unnecessary, but other than that, I have no issue with a twist that seems to divide audiences right down the middle.

A little different for Martin Scorsese, sure, but with one of the best directors ever, it's fun just to see him work.  This is a movie that works in term of story and also on its own as a strong movie with casting, cinematography, and atmosphere.  It doesn't really matter the order, but read the book and see the movie!

Shutter Island <----trailer (2010): ****/****

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