Sunday, February 21, 2010

Love: Shutter Island

Watching a film by Martin Scorsese is a special experience, a reminder of what perfectly executed film looks and feels like. Shutter Island, his newest suspense thriller starring muse Leonardo DiCaprio, is as exquisitely hand crafted as his other great films, with an old Hollywood aura it that makes feel instantly magical, despite the flailing actor at its helm.

U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) have been assigned the mysterious disappearance of a patient at the mental asylum for the criminally insane on Shutter Island, a dubious looking place that is as alive with evil and portent as the forests in a Nathaniel Hawthorne story. With little help from head psychologists Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Dr.  Naehring (Max von Sydow), the Marshals begin to uncover more sinister intentions and plots. As the events begin to unravel while a hurricane batters the island, the line between reality and paranoia begins to blur for the new comers.

Weaving a suspense thriller is tricky business, as the very nature of the story arc leaves any problems or holes in it open to exposure and pacing issues, and once again Scorsese demonstrates his uncanny ability to perfect the art of storytelling. The editing in particular is tight as a drum, the driving force of the drama in the film as it builds to a steady climax with not a frame of film wasted. The cinematography and art production are lush and haunting in a rare way that is neither unbelievable or surreal, simply a heightening of the senses.

But despite all this beautiful, intricate attention to detail, like his recent films this one has a bit of a disjoint in Scorcese's choice of stars. Kingsley and von Sydow are relaxed and excellent as usual, and Michelle Williams in the role of Daniels' wife delivers a stunningly affecting performance in the few scenes she gets. But DiCaprio and his Scorcese Boston accent stand out like a bull in a china shop, busting up the best parts of the film. I still can't quite put my problem with DiCaprio into words; it's not like he's ever that horrible in anything he's in. But in Scorcese's worlds (which he's frequented far too often), he feels like a kid trying on his dad's suit and playing make believe. It's not that his face seems immortally young, but that he never quite manages to disappear into a role, forever playing DiCaprio playing someone else, not the actual character. Although he manages to occasionally push beyond his boundaries, he never makes it real. Here he could easily have been Romeo, Howard Hughes, or Billy Costigan.  I couldn't help but think throughout the film how much I wished the roles were reversed and Mark Ruffalo's excellent, subdued, and secretive performance was as the lead and not the sidekick.

It is this star power problem that perhaps makes the ending unsatisfying. The entire film is building up to something big, something shocking (even if it is predictable to some), and in the hands of DiCaprio, the big reveal feels like a bit of cheat, almost a joke next to the presence of the other actors. I won't reveal any spoilers, but without the ability to make the audience believe, to balance out the subtle emotions of such a role, DiCaprio can't make it work, can't make it worth the previous two hours.

Maybe someday Scorcese will get over his bromance crush and stop putting the weight of his films entirely on DiCaprio's weak shoulders and get back to perfecting the art of cinema, as on this genre pic he's only about half a percent away from a perfect 10. Regardless, while Shutter Island is not exceedingly innovative, it is the modern epitome of the 50's crime film that in the hands of Scorcese is nothing if not beautiful to experience.

1 comment:

  1. Spot on with your assessment of DiCaprio, especially the part about him not being able to cleanly leave behind his previous roles.


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