Monday, March 1, 2010

Shutter Island (2010)

By Eric Jessen 3/1/2010

Martin Scorsese's new film Shutter Island is like a great jumble or crossword from the newspaper: fun to twiddle over while waiting for your flight at the airport. And for at least the first hour-and-a-half to two hours it was hard to put down. But as with all puzzles the solution pales in comparison to the fun of unscrambling. Although the solution is quite tantalizing. (When it's finally time to board I always peak at the up-side-down fine print on the jumble.) Reading the Dennis Lehane novel that inspired the movie it must be almost impossible to resist flipping to the final chapter.
Shutter Island certainly has all the elements of a great spellbinder. Scribbled notes, misnomers and anagrams turn our brain to mush. The story twists and turns with seemingly no regard for retracing its steps. And what better setting for a mind-bender than an asylum for the criminally insane. Ghostly crazies creep around ward A, whispering to themselves. In ward C scarred and battered faced maniacs, some with body parts held together by what look like zippers, dangle their arms through cell bars, grasping at air. Muffled screams and the thumps and screeches of the soundtrack underline the tension.
To open we see two U.S. Marshals, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), investigating the disappearance of a convicted killer riding a ferry. From the thick fog that covers the strangely 2D looking Boston Harbor we know there's something odd in the works on Shutter Island.
Deputy Warden McPherson (John Carrol Lynch) greets the marshals at the shore with few words and a skeptical look in his eyes. At the gate when McPherson asks for the marshals' firearms Chuck has trouble getting his gun out of his holster – the first little piece of the puzzle to put in our memory bank. The marshals meet the head Doc John Cawley (played by Sir Ben Kingsley) who shows them to the escaped “patient” Rachel Solando's room. Under a broken floor board Teddy finds a note that says “Who is 67” - another puzzle piece, this one a corner.
A white haired German doctor played by Max Von Sydow gives us chills. A hurricane hits Shutter Island leaving the marshals stranded in a cemetery. From there as the story unfolds it becomes apparent that Teddy has fallen into an elaborate trap. We learn Daniels has his own agenda aside from finding Rachel Solando. He suspects Shutter Island is not just an asylum for the criminally insane but a secret government laboratory for gruesome psychological experimentation, and he's determined to prove it. But it seems the doctors and the warden are always one step ahead of him.
Questions in our mind mount. Although the movie is almost half finished our puzzle seems barely started, as if we had a mix of pieces from two different puzzles. What are we to make of Teddy's flashbacks of storming Dachau – numerous close-ups of frozen emaciated corpses seem gratuitous – as well as dreams of his late wife smoldering into ash? Were these flashbacks and dreams along with strange conversations actually hallucinations caused by a spiked aspirin or cigarette? Is Teddy in fact slowly going insane?
A vital document Teddy refuses to acknowledge and a cigarette delicately placed at the edge of a cliff – two more pieces to the puzzle which only add to our confusion. The most compelling question becomes how is this possibly going to end? Only in hindsight did it seem possible. Surprisingly almost all loose ends are tied. I can say at least the end is logically satisfying. Unfortunately the fun of the whirlwind dissipates. Teddy finds himself blabbing on and on through fire in a cave, wasting a dozen matches to light a conversation in a prison cell, then finally storming ward B, the infamous lighthouse, and learning the truth from Dr. Cawley. I guess the game has to end somehow.

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