Sunday 21 March 2010

Shutter Island

I went to see Shutter Island at last today. I've never been the biggest fan of Martin Scorsese, but I am a fairly big Leo fan, so off I trotted to my local cinema to see if the so-called 'Gothic thriller' would live up to expectations.

For the most part, it did. Set a thriller in a creepy mental institution on a remote island, lashed by a hurricane and staffed by Max von Sydow and Sir Ben Kingsley, and your suspicions will instantly be aroused. Sure, we've seen this before, so Scorsese throws in a staccato strings soundtrack (perhaps Hitchcock misplaced it after making Psycho), weird dreams of a dead wife and some Holocaust flashbacks, and ends up with a bizarre concoction that doesn't seem to be able to decide what it wants to be. Psychological noir-thriller? Surreal horror? Knowing pastiche of an entire genre?

Mental institutions are rarely depicted as calm sanctuaries of healing. Arkham Asylum, possibly the most famous cinematic institution, is usually a Gothic pile full of dark cells and screaming inmates, while even superhero pisstake Mystery Men featured a fortress-like asylum on an island off the mainland, home to Geoffrey Rush's delightfully insane Casanova Frankenstein. Scorsese has taken this on board, and added flourishes borrowed from the decaying Danvers of Session 9, to give us Ashecliffe.

Rachel, played by Emily Mortimer, is a patient at Ashecliffe (home to the criminally insane). She has murdered her three children, but is so unable to acknowledge her crime that she lives in a fiction, in which Ashecliffe is her former home and the other patients are neighbours. She manages to disappear from inside a locked room, leaving behind her shoes. Apparently Jonathan Creek wasn't available, so they call in Teddy Daniels, a US marshall (played by Leonardo DiCaprio, still looking as youthful as ever), to investigate. Partnered by the affable Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), Teddy starts digging, although if you dig up the past, all you ever get is dirty.

Conspiracy theories are never far from the surface, particularly in a film set in 1954 (a time when 'the Reds' were hiding everywhere - if you weren't careful, you might even find one in your morning bowl of cereal), and soon Teddy doesn't know who to trust. Believing there is more to Ashecliffe than meets the eye, he finds himself stranded on the island, and convinced he is being kept there to prevent him 'blowing the lid' off what really happens at the institution (shades of The Wicker Man, anyone?). His dreams grow weirder, seeming to encroach on waking life, and the backdrop of the hurricane ramps up the tension. Frequent references are made to his time as a GI in WWII, particularly his involvement in the liberation of Dachau, although whether we are supposed to take this past as an explanation for his defensive, paranoid state of mind is unclear.

It's beautifully shot, perfectly evoking the 1950s through its excellent wardrobe stylings, and references to 'the H-bomb'. At the same time, it also brings to mind the stark film noir of the time, with typical chiaroscuro lighting and inmates - sorry, patients - who wouldn't look out of place in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Watchmen's Jackie Earle Haley plays a disfigured patient in a dank cell, proving that he can play more characters than psychotic Rorschach by playing...another psychotic. Leo is as watchable as ever, although he's perhaps a teensy bit too earnest in his portrayal of a haunted, paranoid detective. Kingsley's Dr Cawley is just the right side of sinister, although von Sydow's German doctor is too one-dimensional and stereotypical to really work.

I would recommend it, particularly since it's different from the other films currently on release. I enjoyed it far more than Alice in Wonderland, which I didn't like enough to even write a post about. This is madness that you can not only believe in, you can fear...after all, how would you ever know if you were so crazy that the world around you was simply your invention?


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