art in all its forms

art in all its forms

2/27/10

'Shutter Island' is Martin Scorcese's Holocaust film

Leonardo DiCaprio suffers from one hell of a migraine 

The buried subject of Martin Scorcese's Shutter Island is more surprising than the film's final twist. While any viewer is likely to see the closing 10 minutes coming from the start of the movie, she is not likely, however, to have expected Scorcese's brilliant (and oblique) examination of World War II.

True, Scorcese's source material, a novel of the same name penned by Denis Lahane (author of Mystic River) does deal with the aftermath of the war. But in this film, the director of Taxi Driver and The Departed is doing far more than being faithful to his source material.

In 1954, U.S. marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio in his best film performance to date) is assigned to investigate the disappearance of a patient from Boston's infamous Shutter Island Ashecliffe Hospital. With his partner Chuck (the undervalued Mark Ruffalo), he sets off to the island and arrives to find one hell of a creepy institution.

Teddy soon uncovers a promising lead, but the hospital (headed by Ben Kingsley) refuses him access to records he suspects would break the case wide open. As a hurricane cuts off communication with the mainland, more dangerous criminals 'escape' in the confusion, and the puzzling, improbable clues multiply, Teddy begins to doubt everything around him and begins to suffer increasingly intense flashbacks and hallucinations.

The bare bones of the material are nothing new. But with the aid of the great editor Thelma Schoomaker, Scorcese has created a powerful and compelling mood poem that unsettles and surprises. Schoomaker has edited each and every one of Scorcese's films and is a key reason why his movies are so revered. Here she once more excels with an editing technique that focuses on what the best editing should: the relationship between images; the integration of image and sound and the transition of tones one frame to the next.

There are eerie and beautiful images that don't just exist to please us but also serve the story. As for that thing, the plot, when it all falls into place what remains becomes something of a meditation on buried history; of society's inability to process past atrocities. This is key to scenes where Teddy recalls his experiences during World War II.

In one scene he recalls piles of dead children at a work-camp. In another, his confrontation with a Nazi military officer who tries to kill himself. And in another, the murder of a group of Nazis by American forces. Scorcese is careful to make acute social observations later: a Nazi doctor works at the hospital on Shutter Island, apparently after having fled Germany. The hospital itself is staffed with and contains Jews, and also blacks. The blacks are given specific roles, in a social order not yet able to learn lessons from the anti-semitism of WWII.

All of these details are not just embellishments to the mental discord within Teddy's mind but are key to what I think is the central subject of this film: history. In this sense the work resembles Michael Haneke's Cache (for which Scorcese has been linked to direct an American remake).

Shutter Island was supposed to have been released last year but Studio executives were unsure it would perform effectively during the American Fall season, normally glutted with award-bait.

If it had been released last year, it would have, most likely, been compared to that other great revisionist treatment of World War II: Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. Both films approach their central tragedy from unexpected avenues and, in the process, avoid falling into the traditional tropes that surround the American cinema's relationship with and treatment of the Holocaust. Shutter Island, which is the best film of the year thus far, is a movie that cannot be ignored. Even when it becomes predictable, it remains deeply unsettling and unforgettable because of how it builds a fortress and breaks history down like a house of cards.

WATCH the Shutter Island trailer here.

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