By Doug Thompson
Some compositions by Beethoven are called “chips from the master’s workbench,” and are considered light and inconsequential. That doesn’t mean they aren’t beautiful. They are easier to listen to because they require much less commitment than a symphony.
Likewise, there are much, much better Martin Scorsese films than “Shutter Island.” But “Shutter Island” is not a film. It’s a movie. “The Departed” is a much better film. I enjoyed “Shutter Island” more.
The best description — as usual — comes from “Variety” reviewer Todd McCarthy (www.variety.com): “Expert, screw-turning narrative filmmaking put at the service of old-dark-madhouse claptrap.”
“Shutter Island” does not create tension like, for instance, M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense.” It has some jolts, but not many. Those jolts that it does have, such as the German officer with bad aim, are more hard-to-look-at than terrifying.
Critics who don’t like the film say it fails to create as much suspense as it should. I think this movie was intended to create uneasiness more than tension. It comes from an earlier era. Although the film is set in 1954, this movie could have been made in the mid-1930s with Boris Karloff in Ben Kingsley’s role and Bela Lugosi in Max von Sydow’s, once you lose the Death Camp liberation back story. I would have put James Cagney in Leonardo DiCaprio’s role, too. That’s the “old-dark-madhouse claptrap” being referred to here.
Those old “haunted house” movies weren’t that terrifying, really. I think Scorsese gets that. I think he hit what he was aiming at very well. So does his cast.
Don’t be lulled into thinking this is just light popcorn fare, however. The film thoroughly deserves its “R” rating.
To state a simple thing strangely, the lack of a significant, weighty, complex meaning highlights the performances here. I don’t just mean the leading actors, either. Ted Levine — virtually unrecognizable as the same actor who played on the TV series “Monk” — does a very good job with a short scene, for instance.
In fact, if there is one piece of advice to give before anyone sees this movie, it should be this: Don’t focus on DiCaprio. Pay attention and respect, because DiCaprio deserves it. His scene with the bigoted patient is the best performance ever given simply by bearing down with a pencil, for instance. But everybody in this movie is great — cast and crew. There isn’t a lousy performance. It is Exhibit “A” that Scorsese is a director of unmatched technical proficiency and an actor’s director at the same time, something extraordinarily rare. I suspect the two are closely related.
Scorsese can get the best out of people, whether they are A-list actors or lighting technicians.
It’s a virtuoso performance of an easy piece. Most of the criticism out there is of the composer. The praise should go to the conductor and the musicians. They deserve much. None of this talk about not putting too much attention to the plot should be misinterpreted as criticism of the source material, a book by Dennis Lehane. By all accounts, it’s excellent.
There’s going to be some repeat business for this movie, or at least some healthy DVD rentals. There will be a lot of people watching it again to catch what they missed the first time. I respectfully suggest that people catch it at the theater instead of waiting for the DVD, largely for that reason. Let the DVD be your second viewing.
The reviewer for “New Yorker” (www.newyorker.com) magazine — the nation’s foremost forum of movie reviews that talk down to everybody — gets it: “Rats! Rain! Lightning! Lunatics! Mausoleums! Migraines! Creepy German scientists! Nobody could accuse Martin Scorsese, in ‘Shutter Island,’ of underplaying his hand.” It goes on to deliver a rave review about a movie it knows isn’t “Raging Bull.”
“Shutter Island” is what it wants to be. In the end, it does ask a poignant question: Which would be worse, to live as a monster or to die as a good man?
The answer isn’t “Rosebud.” It’s not that complicated, but it is far, far more grueling.