Monday, February 22, 2010

Shutter Island: You invest 2.5 hours and get 3 minutes in return

U.S. Marshalls go to Shutter Island, a mental hospital for the criminally insane, to find an escaped prisoner and stumble across a bigger mystery. Brief, but frequent moments of shoddy writing and cinematography damage the experience of what might have otherwise been a memorable and insightful film.

United States Marshalls Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are dispatched to Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of a patient who seems to have evaporated into thin air. Doctor Cawley (Ben Kingsley) shows them around, tells them about the facility and the patient, but seems to be hiding his true motives. While on the island, some of Teddy’s personal and war experiences come to the surface, affecting his ability to investigate effectively. A storm, both environmental and emotional, overtakes the grounds and reveals some painful truths.

Shutter Island has introspective moments that could shine lights on long forgotten skeletons in anyone’s closet. Sadly, just as one might be forced to ask themselves hard questions, the light goes out. Occasionally, it is because the writing or execution of the lines is unnatural. Even more frustrating are the dollar store green screen visuals.
Director Martin Scorsese and director of photography Robert Richardson pay meticulous attention to the lighting, framing and shadow in Shutter Island. Each location is lit to draw the viewers attention where the director wants it, where the story demands it be, and creates a deeply entrenching mood for the audience.

Then out of nowhere, while the audience is sitting obediently in the visual trench Scorsese dug for us, he throws dirt on our heads. The carefully lit scenery is replaced by green screen effects that would be rejected by the producer of any late night show. There are a few dream or fantasy sequences that are technically well done but leave the audience scratching their heads. Occasionally, Scorsese pays better attention to how the scene looks than how it is acted or written and it distracts from the overall film.

Much of Shutter Island relies on the relationship between Teddy and Chuck. For the most part, their relationship, streams smoothly across the screen. Just as you buy into the silky ride, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, and writer Laeta Kalogridis throw tires onto the road. They aren’t interesting; they are the nuisances of bad acting and unpolished writing. The phraseology used by Teddy is inconsistent and bizarre. Even when Teddy‘s dialogue is written within the believable range, DiCaprio occasionally overacts relatively tame scenes. Ruffalo and DiCaprio’s consistency lack chemistry or sincerity. As the film progresses, the nature of their relationship changes, but the feeling between them does not.

My biggest frustration when I reached the end of Shutter Island is that I never feel attached to the characters. The use of fantasy and the obvious secrets throughout the story made me feel like the filmmakers were keeping me at an uncomfortable distance.

Even given all the problems, Shutter Island does leave the audience with something to think and talk about at the end. For those of us who have skeletons hung amongst our skinny jeans, the ending may give pause and may even force introspection. My husband and I discussed the ending and its meaning for nearly two hours.

Shutter Island’s pay off did not feel worth the two and a half hour investment of my time. We can ask ourselves the same question and have the same honest discussion without the context of Shutter Island’s story. There is little, besides the last three minutes of the film, to really grasp onto as powerful, entertaining or interesting. It might be good for a discussion group but barring that, it has little to offer a general audience.