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Shutter Island’ twists, turns but falls short

Shane Steinberg | Tuesday, February 23, 2010

“Shutter Island” plays as though it’s so many things that it’s not: a horror film, a 1950s detective tale, mainstream entertainment for everyday filmgoers, a complicated psychological thriller that some might call a “mindbender”… the list goes on and on.
Martin Scorsese’s latest film is in fact a genre-bending, smartly-crafted thriller veiled as an exercise in complicated “make you think” filmmaking that is actually pretty straightforward and easy to guess at, yet enjoyable nonetheless. That is to say, it succeeds as a journey and in its destination.

Why? I’ll tell you why, and some will understand this, while the rest of you (the ones who will either be perplexed by or think of the film’s ending as a work of utter genius) will think I’m speaking a foreign language: “Shutter Island” is “Memento” stripped of its emotional closeness, mixed in with a more intricate “The Machinist” with the same exact themes. Add to that a less meticulous and more accessible brand of David Lynch-like filmmaking.
At the heart of this winding homage to 50s noir, set in a mental asylum, is a mystery in his own right: Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshal with a past that’d raise hairs on the backs of even the prison’s inmates (Leonardo DiCaprio, sporting the same heavy “Mahk”-instead-of-“Mark” Boston accent as he did in “The Departed”).

At the film’s foggy open we’re introduced to Teddy’s cold, suspicious stare as he looks outward to the foreboding island ahead, his new partner, Mark (Mark Ruffalo), at his side. The pair of them have been sent to the island to investigate the mysterious (you might say improbable) disappearance of the elusive Rachel Solando, an inmate convicted of drowning her three children. However, as they question and start to learn about the institution and its rather perplexing, seemingly villainous director (Ben Kingsley), it becomes increasingly apparent that there may be more to this than just the disappearance of a murderer.

It’s that underlying uneasiness and ambiguity that shrouds every scene and establishes the intrigue in the film that thankfully survives the film’s rather long runtime. With each door unopened and each person questioned comes yet another round of questions that add another dimension to the maze that is Rachel’s disappearance and the institution itself. Add to that the flashbacks and hallucinations that quickly and increasingly become more and more a part of Teddy’s psyche.

Something wrong is afoot as the film’s score plays underling to deliberate camerawork meant to parallel Teddy’s mental freefall, and it’s not until the very end of the film that it starts to make sense (that is if you haven’t correctly guessed what that something is).
Yes, something is very wrong, and as what’s only mildly clear begins to become more unclear, the focus both literally and figuratively shifts and looks inward rather than outward as the true mystery — the one mined throughout the film in flashbacks and hallucinogenic dreams — unveils itself.

“Shutter Island” is the work of a master showcasing his love and knowledge of the medium, yet it falls short of its lofty aspirations. Its fatal flaw is that it tries so hard to be emotionally wrought. Despite its valiant attempts to make any semblance of an emotional connection with the audience, it fails miserably. There is no punch in the stomach (or heart, to better represent the film’s intentions), only “show-stopping” sequences where DiCaprio mourns the loss of his wife and thinks back to liberating a Nazi death camp, where he shines like none other yet still somehow remains in his own mind and not in ours. It’s that extra dimension — that missing piece to the puzzle that is “Shutter Island” — that made “Memento” so exceptional and by that same measure makes this film “good.”

Nevertheless, “Shutter Island”, despite its shortcomings, remains a successful marriage between one of the great filmmakers in the world and one of his favorite actors, in what might be DiCaprio’s best performance to date. He’s one of the best American actors of this time, and while the film may be Scorsese’s, it’s DiCaprio who transcends all else and gives himself unto a performance that should be remembered come Oscar season.