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Shutter Island

It’s difficult to appropriate a stance when a genuine master of cinema decides to do the equivalent of potter around in his garden. Is it better to admire him for doing whatever he feels like? Is it worth sympathising with him for having to take on projects like this due to his unbankability? Or is it fair to be a bit sniffy and wonder why, as he nears the end of a truly magnificent career, he doesn’t just stick to low-budget stuff or churn out the odd ace documentary?

You’re caught in amongst all of those micro-debates and yet, when it comes down to it, it’s good just to have him around to polish the grime on what turns out to be a largely compulsive, relatively tense thriller.

The story itself: Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, who still looks like he glues stubble on) is heading to the titular island with his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the highly improbable and mysterious escape of Rachel Solando (a wired, quivering and ghostly Emily Mortimer). They go through the de rigeur rigmarole of being waylaid or rebuffed by everyone they speak to, from obstinate orderlies to a gamely abrupt Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley, who acts everyone into the shadows with urbane, exquisite ease) who playfully tolerates the visitors with languid mirth dancing behind his eyes. Daniels isn’t there merely to round-up an AWOL oddball; he has other things on his mind, such as the man who started the fire that killed his wife and kids being on the island somewhere and covert brain experiments being carried out.

The first twenty-five minutes feels like Scorsese having fun a la Cape Fear – camera-trickery aplenty as he stretches his legs, cracks his knuckles and toys around, warming up nicely and ratcheting things up whilst presumably wearing a big daft grin on his face. Scorsese is still one of the few directors that can muck about whilst adding to the film – it’s a bit like making hyperbole work in literature. You’ve got to be a bit special to get away with the same old leitmotifs: not only does he get away with them, they never disrupt the pacing or tone, as though they’re an insubmersible part of his natural visual language as opposed to honed affectations or bored meddling.

And then he tempers his flamboyance to the detriment of the film (perhaps, as he gets tired of a film, he puts the camera jazz to one side and just shoots the thing?), and seems to decide that this is a serious piece of work after all. It isn’t, it’s a gritty romp and he should’ve stuck to his trademark inventory of camera flourishes. The result is uneven. As the film loses momentum you’ll be hankering for a cheeky zoom here and there which never really arrives. An inconsistency of tone being far worse than a flat-out shameless jugular chaser that this could have been a magnificent example of.

Still, it picks up again in the last half-hour as the rug is rather clumsily pulled from under you, and you have a result of sorts – and even a fairly poignant final scene. A slack, relatively dull middle-third aside, it’s compulsive and entertaining, and feels a little like another of Scorsese’s lesser films, the exhilarating, neon-lit midnight runaround After Hours.

The performances are good: the aforementioned Kingsley has the film in his pocket every time he turns up, and Ruffalo and Williams are both excellent. Max Von Sydow is all grinning austerity and looks like he may decide to ignore everyone and pick lint off his jacket at any moment. DiCaprio, as with Johnny Depp, is hampered by an eternal boyishness but does a good job in a difficult role and seems increasingly happy and apt in truly miserable roles.

All of this doesn’t mean that, five minutes after you’ve left the cinema, you won’t wonder when he’s going to make another great film and stop marking time. Punching under his weight doesn’t get anywhere near it. As long as he’s bankrolling something with this, it’s all ok.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Mary
    March 27, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    Well thank you Lee for a brilliant review and it’s always heartening to be so wholeheartedly im agreement. I particularly like your description of Ben Kingsley’s character as having `languid mirth dancing behind his eyes’. Exactly. And perhaps it was the real Ben Kingsley having a laugh at being paid so handsomely for some pretty effortless suaveness. I also enjoyed your phrase about Scorsese putting the camera jazz to one side and just shooting the thing. I’m struck by how much this observation can be applied to a number of novelists who launch their opening chapters with a display of literary fireworks , run out of steam and then for the the rest of the work continue in a rather more normal and often pedestrian fashion.
    As for `Shutter Island’, I was in a position of not having any pre-conceived ideas as I hadn’t read any pre-publicity. The first half hour was terrific I thought. The gloomy seascape, the creepy island ( a wonderful location find – where was it really?). Leonardo looking porkier and more careworn but just the thing for a jaded cop and wonderful Mark Ruffalo as well. OK so the plot was a teeny bit familiar and the Loony Bin with the secrets has been done before but I was ready to roll with the whole thing. Ben Kingsley – a bit silky. Max Von Sydow (how old is he – 130?) a bit creepy but the potential for a real thriller. And then – oh no – a dream sequence. Now I really don’t like them. In the same way I don’t like Magic Realism. However it was well done with the burning coals and the ashes to ashes bit. Then came the scene in the graveyard and the mausoleum. Here I was ready for some action – a chase or a fight but having built up the mise en scene Scorsese threw it all away with one of the guards just coming to pick them up
    in the company car. After that it began to unravel for me particularly at the point where there was a double dream sequence. Then my mind began to wander a bit. Didn’t one of the psychos in the punishment wing look awfully like de Niro? What did that woman in the cave manage to live on? Roast rat every night? The end bit with the drowned children was very shocking and the bit where everyone was revealed to be in cahoots though it rang some bells from other films ( no doubt a deliberate hommage). Overall though – very disappointing. It reminded me of my kids when they used to hate stories which ended with ` Tom woke up and it was all a dream’. But I note that `King of Comedy’ is on the TV next week – now there’s a real Scorsese masterpiece.

  2. March 27, 2010 at 8:34 pm

    Thanks for the kind comments, Mary! Yes, the DeNiro lookalike is uncanny, I’d forgotten about that. And absolutely great parallel re: literature – a common occurence for a writer to expend a lot of fireworks on the initial pages for it to settle down somewhat!

    King Of Comedy is one of my five or six favourite films. Total masterpiece. Even better than Taxi Driver, Goodfellas or New York, New York.

  3. March 27, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    PS not sure on the location – it is a wonderful choice for the film.

  4. August 31, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    I’m finally catching up on my film watching after years of gross negligence, so forgive this very late comment. Watching this movie was an interesting experience.

    First, that first scene (the one your screen pic is taken from): when I was watching it I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was awful! It all felt fake to me, and yet there’s DiCaprio and Ruffalo and Scorsese behind the camera. The dialogue and staging felt clumsier than a community play, and it looked like both actors were having trouble establishing their roles. Thankfully, it got better and I came to realize that that fake play feel was deliberate. So, like that, I’m a fan of the technique.

    I agree with your review at all points. I had fun with this one, and I hope that’s how it was intended.

    Oh, and I had to check the cast list to make sure DeNiro didn’t have a cheeky cameo here, which would have been all the more fun, I think.

  5. September 2, 2011 at 8:18 am

    No way, Trevor – great to have you on here!

    I had the same issue initially but thoroughly enjoyed the Fuller-esque final result. I think Ruffalo had the toughest job here, in retrospect, and feel a little harsh in not looking at it quite that way when I wrote this…

    Yes! DeNiro in here would’ve been fabulous. Why not indeed? Although his presence in other recent movies, such as Limitless, prompts thoughts of him being pre-paid and indifferent, which is depressing.

  6. September 2, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    I have been following your blog from the beginning, Lee, but it’s been a couple of busy years so I haven’t seen many of the films. Thankfully, that is changing a bit — but our third boy is due at the end of the month, so this could be short-lived indeed.

    I used to be more of a film lover than a book lover (though always a book lover, too), but it’s a much more expensive hobby to do correctly and not one I can pursue satisfactorily on the train (unless it’s to read film books (like the LOA’s new volume of Pauline Kael which looks like a nice one to have)).

    To give a sense of the situation, which I’m sure is familiar since you also have a growing family, a couple of months ago I got a copy of Tarkovsky’s Solaris. I tried to watch it one Sunday afternoon when the kids were playing in another room. I believe you’ve seen the film, so you might remember that the first ten minutes consist of long shots of the underwater plants. I was loving it, but I hadn’t gotten very far into the film when the kids tired of their room and interrupted me (not a bad thing, for sure, but impossible to watch anything in that circumstance, and well beyond impossible to watch Solaris). So I put a bluray in my home office where I can watch films later in the evening without interrupting anyone and without getting interrupted. Hopefully this little change will allow me to reignite the old film-watching passion.

    Incidentally, perhaps it would be a bit unwieldy now, but I was wondering if you might consider some kind of archive directory (say, by director) to make it easier to find your older reviews. Perhaps a recent comments section too, if you’re so inclined . . .

    At any rate, as I said before, glad to be catching up and looking forward to participating more!

  7. September 5, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    Just as you clear the decks a little, Trevor, mayhem ensues once again! Delightful mayhem, though, and the time will come soon enough when you’re all going through the Artificial Eye collection (after a brief but painless Studio Ghibli interlude no doubt)…

    I think I share a similar experience there. I always find one complements the other, but as you say, time is always at a premium in such days and the expense is unignorable. I do love Kael: I’ll have to look into that. Have you read David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film? It’s glorious, peerless stuff. And in it, he admits to preferring books!

    Solaris is a non-starter with two young ‘uns on the roam! Of all films! Flubber might be taxing at such a moment, never mind Tarkovsky! But I’ll tell you, your little arrangement has me jealous. I hope it allows you the time to get a few films in. La Quatro Volte, I’m sure, you would love, and such an environment sounds perfect…

    Your suggestion on the blog makes sense, of course, but I am notoriously poor at integrating even the slightest computer-based intricacies, and am fearful. But I will have a look into it!

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