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Shutter Island Passes On Its Strong Source Material

Shutter Island
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Laeta Kalogridis based on the novel by Dennis Lehane
Paramount/Dreamworks, 2010

Sometimes you just don’t need a great director to make a movie that passes as entertaining, and Shutter Island, with its exposition-heavy series of reveals, is one of them.  You won’t be seeing a movie that has the certified Scorsese stamp on it, and perhaps that’s why this movie never quite blasts off into “great.”  The story comes from new “it” book-deal author, Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone).

Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a federal marshal traveling with his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to an island penitentiary in Boston Harbor known as Shutter Island.  A violent patient who drowned her three kids has escaped, and no one can find her.  Strangely though, Teddy and Chuck are stonewalled everywhere they go, getting no help from the chief psychiatrist Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley).  They aren’t allowed access to files, the staff seem like they’re withholding information, and the patients are impossible to read.

Teddy is tormented by the loss of his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), who died of smoke inhalation when their apartment was set ablaze by a man Teddy suspects to be at Shutter Island, a personal reason he took the case in the first place.  After awhile, Teddy starts getting the idea that sane people come to this island and that the doctors eventually stamp them as insane, and imprison them forever for sick and twisted reasons.

You are likely to guess some of the revelations, even the biggest one.  But the story is strong enough that once you get to that part, you probably won’t be prepared for the additional surprises after that.  I have heard that the book is bleak, and the movie retains that.  This is not a movie in which you will be walking out loving life afterwords.  It’s the good kind of bleak, though…dramatic and heartbreaking.  Leonardo DiCaprio also pulls off one of his best performances ever.  Many times I’ve seen DiCaprio in this decade and he’s grown as the powerhouse actor we thought he would be from his promise in the 90s, but sometimes he falters in certain scenes and it’s hard to put a finger on why that is exactly.  Here, he is flawless.

That said, this is the kind of movie Scorsese seems to indulge in (think Cape Fear or Bringing Out the Dead), where he just doesn’t seem to be totally on board.  A guy with an eye like Scorsese should have been able to elevate this material to a more cinematic plane.  This is a movie filled with reams of exposition, and it can be riveting, but with Scorsese at the helm, and his resident editor Thelma Schoonmaker, you would think he would have been more visual in his revelations instead of having them explained.  He also does a scene that I’ve grown entirely weary of, and that’s when the main character is dreaming, or having visions, and basically you just can’t trust anything onscreen, and out goes my willingness to care.

This is a decent movie with some good story wallops, but those expecting a masterpiece will be disappointed.

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