Sunday, April 04, 2010

Shutter Island

What happens when every single thing in a film is literally perfect, apart from the story plot?

It's the mid-1950s and America is in the throes of Cold-war paranoia.

There's a secluded island which is being used as a hospital for the criminally insane. A ferry is the only link to the world. Inclement weather and vast stretches of rugged cliffs prevent anyone from leaving and an old lighthouse looms in the distance as the perfect background to something disturbing.

It's no coincidence that two US marshalls have been summoned up to investigate a mysterious disappearance on the island. Add the supreme direction of legendary Martin Scorsese (with a nod and a wink at the suspensful themes of Alfred Hitchcock) and the excellent Leonardo Di Caprio in the lead role and there are all the ingredients to suggest Shutter Island is definitely a film worth watching.

Certainly the first hour won't let you down. When US marshall Teddy Daniels (Di Caprio) and his assistant Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) arrive on the island, the tension is already palpable. All prison guards appear on edge and even the head psychiatrist (Ben Kingsley) comes across as somewhat cagey.

The two marshalls are looking for answers behind the seemingly inexplicable disappearance of a patient (Rachel Solando, played by Emily Mortimer) guilty of killing her own three children.

Further complications come when Teddy clocks that another top psychiatrist at the facility, Dr Jeremiah Nahering, is obviously a Nazi war criminal at large who settled in under an assumed identity. This is when Teddy's traumatic past is gradually brought into the fore. There are frequent flashbacks of his WWII days and the terrible scenes he witnessed while serving with the US forces that liberated Dachau, one of the most notorious Nazi concentration camps.

But Teddy is haunted by something else too. Opening up to his colleague Chuck, he reveals that his wife died in a mysterious fire two years before. His increasingly frequent vivid dreams, which Scorsese beautifully portrays in Hitchcockian style, suggest that the traumatic event has scarred him beyond recognition.

As the plot unveils and interviews with patients are carried out, Teddy starts suspecting that the island is being used for secret mind control experiments, including lobotomy, something the CIA is now known to have carried out at the height of the Cold War.

However, without wishing to reveal too much, it is at this point that Shutter Island begins its downward spiral.

It's great to have a plot twist, two or three. No probs with delusions or conspiracies, hallucinations and experiments and maybe a countertwist too. All of the above, as long as every single piece adds up though. Because when it all comes together at the end of Shutter Island, it is quite clear that the entire edifice that built the story up in the first half doesn't have a leg to stand on.

Quite simply, the idea that dozens of orderlies and nurses, prison guards and fellow patients, along with a psychiatrist dressing up as federal law enforcer (by the way did he get his toy gun from Toys "R" Us props section?) may all have been involved in a giant full-time end-of-school-term roleplay is flimsier than John Terry's plea that he wasn't going to cheat on his missus ever again.

Which is a real shame. The premises are second to none, the acting is spot-on and the cinematic feeling is (literally) from another era. The symbolism and metaphors are great. The lack of soundtrack proper contributes to the suspense and it's a fantastic two fingers up at today's ADHD-driven film making.

But christ, wasn't there anybody at hand to warn of the giant plot holes?


Anita said...

But you could say the same about Hitchcock's entire filmography.
Things may not add up rationally, but that's exactly part of the intrigue. Not to mention that it's actually fairly feasible that in those days staff at a psychiatric unit could well try a last-ditch experiment to help a patient. An amazing film in my book.

Anonymous said...

Boooooooo. You aint no fan of Hitchock if you think his films add up so rationally. Shutter Island is ace.