Shutter Island, the latest film from Martin Scorsese, is the kind of film that requires a minimum of two viewings in order to fully integrate everything that has happened during the film wholly into one's senses.
The question that one must ask is "Is there enough "entertainment" to keep audiences coming back more than once?"
If the answer is a resounding "Yes!," then it seems likely that Shutter Island may very well be Scorsese's most commercial film to date and his greatest shot at the box-office success that has largely eluded him throughout his highly acclaimed career.
If the answer is "No," however, then Shutter Island may end up being not much more than a Scorsese footnote, a grand yet bland cinematic experiment that never quite gels into the artistic, noirish statement film to which Scorsese seems to aspire.
The truth is I get the distinct feeling that Shutter Island is a brilliant, yet flawed, film.
I get the feeling that virtually everything contained within the celluloid walls of Shutter Island means more than I realize it means, says more than I'm hearing and creates a vision far beyond what I'm currently comprehending.
I get the feeling.
But. I simply don't know.
Is there more here than meets the eye?
Or do I get it? Really get it?
Within five minutes of Shutter Island's 148-minute run time, I had it figured out.
Literally...almost 100% of the storyline had already formulated inside this brain.
Yet, I get the feeling. There's more.
Set in 1954, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives with new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) at the isolated, eerie and haunting island-based insane asylum known as AsheCliffe to investigate the disappearance of patient committed to the asylum for the murder of her own three children. The two are welcomed by the asylum's medical director, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), an ominous presence whose methods vacillate between archaic and cruel, experimental and outright illegal.
Teddy's investigative techniques quickly uncover seemingly important clues, yet he and Chuck are repeatedly blocked by the facility's refusal to hand over patient records. Instead, they are granted only interviews with the already determined to be insane patients. Soon, an approaching hurricane complicates matters and the mystery deepens as some of the patients manage to escape when electricity is knocked out to the fortress like facility.
There are moments in Shutter Island where it feels as if Scorsese's artistry is about to collapse inward, a bold cinematic experiment gone awry. The images don't always make sense, the words seem to be random and the whole island feels as if it is caving in on our senses.
Then, Scorsese and his fine ensemble cast present us with a word, a line, an image or just the simplest of actions and we realize that Scorsese is simply pulling us along and, yes, because this is Scorsese we continue to follow and hope against hope that somehow sense will be made of what, at times, feels like a colossal mess.
As Teddy, DiCaprio continues his cinematic deconstruction began in The Road. a stripping away of his polish spark in favor of brutal, complicated and emotionally raw acting. Dicaprio doesn't so much offer a masterful performance here as he simply offers a deeply authentic performance that finally begins to bring manifest the promise of his pre-Titanic years. DiCaprio may end up being 60-years-old before he can strip away that boyish charm that permeates his every performance, but here in Shutter Island he uses that charm to full advantage and creates a character both utterly believable and strangely, bizarrely captivating.
Similarly, Mark Ruffalo breaks away and serves up what may very well be his best performance to date, a multi-layered and emotionally complex portrayal that is unlike any work he's done in his career thus far. A less experienced actor would have tapped too deeply into the caricature of this character, but Ruffalo finds the soul underneath the words and plays the perfect companion to Teddy.
It should be no surprise that both Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow excel here, both are in familiar territory and yet add fresh and penetrating nuances in their individual roles. Seen primarily in flashback, Michelle Williams shines as Teddy's late wife while Patricia Clarkson is fine in what essentially amounts to an extended, intriguing cameo. Emily Mortimer, John Carroll Lynch, Ted Levine and Jackie Earle Haley also turn relatively minor scenes into lasting impressions.
While the performances in Shutter Island are pleasing across the board, the real star of the film is the behind-the-scenes work of director Martin Scorsese and his production team including the mind-altering production design of Dante Ferretti, the camera work of Robert Richardson and the unsettling original score of Robbie Robertson, a disturbing blend of native rhythms, psychic drumming and sounds that feel as if they are screeching against one's very psyche'.
To describe much more of Shutter Island would be unfair and, in all honesty, it is difficult to expand much further upon the performances, the story and even the film itself without further explaining everything that unfolds.
Truth be told I couldn't possibly do it all justice anyway.
Some films, Shutter Island being one, are best experienced rather than simply read about. Some films, Shutter Island being one, command that you, the movie going audience experience them for yourselves.
Shutter Island is a good film. It may be a great film.
I simply don't know.
I do know that 148-minutes I was riveted and, despite that overwhelming sense of not knowing, Shutter Island is a film I simply cannot forget.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic