March 13, 2010

MOVIES: Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010)

What a marvelously entertaining movie! It is (among other things) Scorsese's riff on 50s horror, and all of the stock figures and cliches are there.

To wit: It's 1954, and our setting is a mental institution/prison "for the criminally insane!," located on a desolate rocky island with only one way on or off. A prisoner (oops, that's "patient," at the insistence of creepy doctors Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow) has escaped from her room in the middle of the night. Federal marshals Leonard DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo are trapped on the island by a raging storm that has (of course) cut off phone service to the island.

And naturally, Nothing Is What It Seems. If Ruffalo really is from Seattle, as he keeps insisting, then why is his Boston accent just as thick as DiCaprio's? Exactly how could Rachel escape from her room and get anywhere on the island, in bare feet, no less? Who's the crazy lady hiding in the caves? And what horrific things are happening in the lighthouse?

The lead performances are all solid -- von Sydow is particularly entertaining, walking right up to the line of camp without ever quite crossing it -- but I took the greatest pleasures in the smaller performances. Emily Mortimer as the escaped patient, Patricia Clarkson as the cave lady, Jackie Earle Haley as a patient from Ward C (that's where all the really dangerous patients are kept), Ted Levine as the menacing warden, Robin Bartlett as a patient who's happy to explain how and why she killed her husband -- they all sparkle, taking full advantage of their brief screen time.

Kudos, too, to Robbie Robertson, who assembled the music for the film, which has no composer; he's assembled work from relatively avant-garde composers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries -- Penderecki, Ligeti, Marshall, Cage, Feldman -- and used it so effectively that you'd think they'd been written for the movie.

The ending isn't quite as surprising as it thinks it is, and doesn't achieve the tragic depths it aims for. We aren't given most of the clues we would need to figure out what's really going on, but then, most of the movies Scorsese is honoring didn't have particularly lucid plots either, and at least this one does (mostly) make sense when it is explained.

But despite the slight weakness of the ending, I had a ball at Shutter Island. It's a big ol' thrill ride that simultaneously pays homage to and gleefully parodies the B-movies of the past.

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