There’s a moment in Shutter Island where Martin Scorsese proves he doesn’t have it in him to make bad cinema. This moment happens when the much maligned twist happens toward the end of the movie. Most directors would have played it as the most important piece in the picture, but Marty’s smarter than that. Instead this titan of cinema chooses to play it as just another piece in the story, never making it feel like it’s some big shock or reveal. It’s certainly going to be a “love it or hate it” turn, and you can mark this review under the former.
Scorsese’s brilliance just doesn’t stop there, as he’s second to none when it comes to directing his actors, structuring his story, and doing everything a master does in his latter years. Recently I referred to James Cameron as “the Michael Jordan of cinematic entertainment.” I still stand by that sentiment, but where Cameron is a great entertaininer, good director, Scorsese is to cinema what Michaelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was to painting ceilings. Here, we encounter Marty as he’s reaching the time in his life where he’ll design his St. Peter’s Bascilla, and one thing still remains: he never has, nor will lose a step.
Scorsese’s new DeNiro, Leonardo DiCaprio joins the master for this journey to Shutter Island. This may sound harsh, but DiCaprio is the weak link in the chain. Don’t get it wrong, he’s good, very good but at the core, there’s nothing that differentiates him from Billy Costigan of The Departed. Had this come duing “Leo-mania” then he’d be praised for how brilliant he is. Nowadays, DiCaprio has proven how good of a cinematician he is and he’s expected to give us something more with his characters rather than something we’re accustomed to.
By contrast, Mark Ruffalo gives possibly the best performance he’s ever done. His mannerisms and speech patterns are all superbly executed, provided you stick with him and the film long enough. Also terrific is the always reliable Ben Kingsley as Dr. John Cawley. He plays his part up incredibly well, offering the perfect amount of smarmy and wit in one beautiful package. He’s complimented by a glorious Max von Sydow, who while in auto-pilot, still provides a solidly great performance as the dark, gloomy, and snide Dr. Jeremiah Naering. Of course, all those adjectives effortlessly describe Mr. von Sydow, so it’s a marriage made in Heaven. Michelle Williams rounds out the major players and she’s golden as the estranged, deceased wife of DiCaprio’s Teddy.
If I’ve been vague, that’s because it’s tough to talk about these characters without revealing much of what happens. Very much, this is one film where the less you know going in the better. With that in mind, focus will now be put on the gorgeous cinematography Robert Richardson is able to construct. He and Scorsese do their best to pull of a very tremendous and creepy atmosphere present in 1950’s mystery thrillers, and to say they succeed is an understatement. The duo even go so far as to shoot a driving scene against a poor green screen effect. As bad as that sounds, it works within the context of the story and for what Scorsese and Robert Richardson were going for.
For music, Scorsese has always been an expert in picking what songs will go and where in his pictures, and for Shutter Island he calls upon the other half of that genius in Robbie Robertson. Robertson has culled together a mix of old tunes and modern classic music’s most finest pieces which once again Master Scorsese uses them perfectly. The best example comes near the beginning when Teddy and Chuck (Ruffalo) make their arrival to the island and the use of Krzystof Penderecki’s “Symphony No. 3 (IV. Passacaglia – Allegro Moderato)”. It’s overblown, and appropriately cheesy, but it works wonderfully, and remains something of a ‘theme’ for the movie. Maybe a better example comes when Max Richter’s “The Nature of Daylight” crops up during Teddy’s flashback to his wife Dolores. The music just hits the right notes during the apex of the scene, as if Richter had the film in mind when he wrote the piece. Applause must also be given to the sound department for not relying on loud noises or going for the cheap scares. Then again, given this is a Martin Scorsese film, that obviously wouldn’t have occurred.
Shutter Island is Scorsese’s first picture since his Academy Award winning The Departed and truth be told, I think I liked this more. The plot engaged me, the pacing was perfect, and I loved the hell out of the ‘twist’ the film gives (not throws) at us. Shutter Island might be a couple of notches short of being among his best work, but when your best work is Goodfellas, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Taxi Driver, and Mean Streets, it’s a bit difficult for any movie to really compete in that class. The film is also proof of that Martin Scorsese will never make a bad film, even if he tries his hardest. His DNA structure won’t allow it, and quite honestly now that the apex of his career is coming to a close, he still continues to show why he’s undoubtedly the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be.