Thursday, 18 March 2010

'Shutter Island' review: After due consideration...

I usually review a film the same day as I watch it and I tend to form my opinions pretty quickly. But there was something about Martin Scorsese’s ‘Shutter Island’ (an adaptation of a popular Dennis Lehane novel and his fourth film in a row staring Leonardo Di Caprio) that made me want to take a couple of days out and gather my thoughts. Now that I have done that, I am able to write this review. However, I should probably start by talking about my initial feelings whilst watching the film, as to some extent they differ from my conclusions.

I should preface all my comments by saying that I happened to have four guys sitting in front of me at the cinema, and they kept talking throughout the film. They used their phones and when people asked them to stop making so much noise; they just got louder and louder. To make matters worse, the film was projected quite badly and was out of focus. These things definitely harmed my experience of ‘Shutter Island’, which started to drag in this atmosphere. However, the film must share some of the blame for my discomfort, as I was also disconnected from events by the director’s choices. I find some of Scorsese’s work to be heavy handed (the slow motion shot of a bible falling into water in ‘Gangs of New York’ has always stood out as an example of this in my mind). In ‘Shutter Island’ Scorsese overuses slow-motion and seems to be more interested in creating iconic cinematic images (worthy of an awards show spot, as in the clip above) than in servicing the story he is telling. I felt this most during the film’s many flashback and dream sequences, some of which slow the film down unnecessarily.

I was feeling this mixture of discomfort at my surroundings, irritation at some of the film’s style and boredom at its length, when I was snapped back into consciousness as the film reached its terrific final act and had me completely captivated. The final scenes are superbly executed and shed a new light on everything that has come before. Many reviewers have suggested that the plot is flimsy and that the plot twists are obvious, but I really never knew (and still don’t know) what to think about the truth on Shutter Island, which I can’t go into here. There is a pleasing ambiguity to much of the film and a real sense that everyone is supremely unreliable (including the filmmaker), more so than in any other film I can think of.

There is also a palpable sense of dread for much of the movie. The cast are generally pitch-perfect, with the possible exception of (the usually decent) Michelle Williams, who slips into horror movie cliche in her role as the protagonists deceased wife. Leonardo Di Caprio is perfect in the central role, injecting all the required intensity and hysteria into every scene, whilst Ben Kingsley is perfectly cast as the Asylum’s doctor. Robbie Robertson’s work as music supervisor also helps provide an atmosphere of foreboding, whilst early shots of the island, shown from the point of view of an approaching ferry, recall all the dread of arriving at Skull Island in ‘King Kong’.

The film is as much homage to Scorsese’s influences as anything Quentin Tarantino has directed, but with more sincerity. Many reviewers have noted that there are references to the films of Powell and Pressburger, Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock, whilst the film also owes a sizeable debt to “guilty pleasure” cinema in the form of B movies. But whilst Tarantino’s invocation of the exploitation genre is knowing and almost kitsch, Scorsese manages to invoke a wide range of these “low-culture” movies, whilst still making his movie in complete earnest.

Overall, my current feeling on ‘Shutter Island’ is that it is a very decent film which does a really good job of leading the viewer into questioning the nature of memory and reality. It is often heavy handed and probably overlong, but the more I think about it the more I am convinced that it is an interesting piece of work about madness and the threat of violence from a director whose best work specialises in that subject matter. Whilst it is always tempting to take a recent film from a “great” filmmaker in their twilight years and dismiss it as “minor” work, I feel ‘Shutter Island’ may yet become a key film in the Scorsese canon.

I know am sure my appreciation for the film will grow on subsequent viewings (especially when I can watch it in a more comfortable environment) and I can’t wait until I get to see it again. I will certainly post here when I have done so, should my feelings on the film change. Perhaps it is ultimately fitting that my opinion of this film seems to be changing over time, with my opinion on it about it about as certain as its protagonists fragile grip on reality.

'Shutter Island' is still playing nationwide and is rated '15' by the BBFC. For an almost opposite view to mine, head over to Wrapped in Brown Paper.

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