ON THE SILVER SCREEN: “SHUTTER ISLAND” IS AN ATMOSPHERIC, EFFECTIVE THRILLER

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By Brian Lafferty

February 23, 2010 (San Diego's East County)-- Shutter Island, the newest feature by director Martin Scorsese, is mesmerizing. It is unlike any Scorsese movie and I’ve seen them all. Originally set to be released back in October, the studio pushed it to February 19. I can tell you without hesitation the wait was worth it.

The movie begins with Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner (Mark Ruffalo) arriving on the titular island, a heavily isolated fortress-like institution that houses the criminally insane. He’s called in to find a missing inmate, a woman who killed her three children and her husband. Of course, it starts out as a straightforward investigation. However, as the movie progresses, things are not as they seem.

In Shutter Island Scorsese places a huge emphasis on atmosphere. With rare exceptions, it is always overcast. The film contains several surreal and powerful dream sequences and flashbacks. The cinematography by Robert Richardson is dark, moody, and gives the film an even more unsettling feel.

Another aspect of this film that I loved was its pacing. Much of Scorsese’s recent output tends to run upwards of two and a half hours long. I’m not opposed to films that length as long as they are engaging and interesting throughout. Fortunately, in this case Shutter Island, which runs two hours and eighteen minutes, never bored me at any point. It constantly kept me guessing and there was always something interesting happening in every scene, even those that had characters simply talking to each other.

Perhaps the only negative thing I can say about it is that I could see part of the film’s twist ending coming a mile away. However, this imperfection is minor because the operative word here is “part.” It became clear to me what the twist was but the reason behind it remained a mystery until the very end. In addition, this twist is only one of many that this film contains. For every question that is answered, two or three more questions pop up.

The acting is low-key and on the surface is underwhelming. It reminded me a lot of the performances in Wolf, a 1994 movie starring Jack Nicholson. In that film Nicholson is bitten by a werewolf and slowly but surely finds himself turning into one. What set that film apart from other horror movies was the realistic acting. Despite Nicholson turning into a werewolf, it was business as usual.

Shutter Island contains the same realistic “business as usual” performances from everyone. A hurricane batters the island, mental patients escape, and surreal dreams plague DiCaprio. The lack of melodrama in the performances enhances the picture because it feels like we’re seeing real people encounter these situations. This makes the thriller element of the film more effective.

Shutter Island is by no means a masterpiece, especiall compared to Goodfellas, The Aviator, and Scorsese’s other highly acclaimed work. That does not mean it is not worth seeing. In fact, I strongly recommend seeing this in the theater for full effect. However, if you’re expecting a masterpiece, this is not one. It knows what it wants to be, which is an atmospheric and effective thriller, and accomplishes it. It is not his best but it is certainly worth the wait.

A Paramount Pictures release.  Director:  Martin Scorsese.  Screenplay:  Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane.  Cinematography:  Robert Richardson.  Cast:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch, and Elias Koteas.  Runtime:  138 minutes.  Rated R.

Brian Lafferty welcomes letters at brian@eastcountymagazine.org.  You can also follow him on Twitter:  @BrianLaff.