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Berlinale. Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" Review + Roundup

David Hudson

Berlinale 2010

Shutter Island

Among the films Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio have told Terrence Rafferty (New York Times) and Scott Timberg (Los Angeles Times) they re-watched or at least had in mind as they made Shutter Island: Otto Preminger's Laura (1944), Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947), Orson Welles's 1962 Kafka adaptation, The Trial (1962), Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor (1963), "and of course," Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). Sure enough, their adaptation of the bestselling novel, itself described by author Dennis Lehane as a hybrid of the Brontë sisters and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), segues and occasionally lurches from homage to allusion to quote to echo. It's a heavy cinephilic soup, to be sure, but also a collage of mid-20th century calamities, as if Freud, having recently slipped from the clutches of the Third Reich, dropped a mickey in Philip Marlowe's glass and projected the detective's nightmares up on the screen.

The craft behind it all is unassailable, of course, but you may find yourself wondering, to what end? Cape Fear's operatic pulp crescendos within a far tighter universe, leading us to concentrate on the dynamics of a family facing down a ferocious threat from the outside. Shutter Island's melded world of Gothic, with its violent weather and gray apparitions, and film noir, with its fedoras and curling cigarette smoke, looks fantastic but it also leaks every which way via flashbacks, visions, distorted perceptions. On one hand, slipperiness is inherent in the tale. When US Marshal Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and his partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), arrive at Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane on that lone rocky island out there and Daniels almost immediately begins hallucinating, we know that the mystery he thinks he's working on isn't going to be the case he'll ultimately be called on to solve. Some here at the festival have faulted the film for signaling its twist too early and often, but first, at least there's a feign to a different twist beforehand, and second, the point isn't so much the a-ha moment as it is the ride.

Which brings us to the other hand. Moment by moment, many of the set pieces, particularly the dream-like sequences in which the dead return for a few last words, are dazzling. One might object to the posing of the frozen corpses at Dachau a bit too beautifully, as if the camps had been stage managed by Gustave Doré, but as Tarantino has reminded us, the Nazi era is history and pop cult fodder. But do all the marvelously varied parts add up to a convincing whole?

A possible answer was suggested at this afternoon's press conference by DiCaprio himself when he recalled talking with Scorsese and the other actors about pitching performances so that they can be read differently during second and third viewings. Perhaps - and this is my hope - Shutter Island simply can't be fully appreciated until seen a second or third time.

 

ROUNDUP

"[E]ven the most devoted of Scorsese fans couldn't necessarily be blamed for expecting little beyond a very very grand piece of Guignol, with inimitable style and panache but maybe not so much resonance," writes Glenn Kenny. "So I am thoroughly happy to report that, to my eyes and ears at least, Shutter Island is, in the Godardian formulation, a vrai Scorsese film, in its way the most fully realized personal work of the Scorsese-DiCaprio collabs, a puzzle picture that, as it puts its plot pieces together, climbs to a crescendo that aims to reach that perfect note of empathetic despair we haven't seen/heard in a Hollywood picture since Vertigo. I think it very nearly gets there."

"Scorsese is in full control of all three rings of this cinematic circus," writes the Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt. "Every lesson he learned, from Alfred Hitchcock to Don Siegel, is on display. Nearly every camera move is fraught with excitement. The music, costumes, props and the many rooms and halls of this fortress-prison are designed for maximum emotional impact. After finally getting that long-sought Oscar for The Departed, perhaps Scorsese figures it's time to have a bit of fun.... Let's hope this is a digression in his illustrious career, a way of playing with what Orson Welles called the 'toys' of moviemaking."

"Expert, screw-turning narrative filmmaking put at the service of old-dark-madhouse claptrap, Shutter Island arguably occupies a similar place in Martin Scorsese's filmography as The Shining does in Stanley Kubrick's," suggests Variety's Todd McCarthy. "In his first dramatic feature since The Departed, Scorsese applies his protean skill and unsurpassed knowledge of Hollywood genres to create a dark, intense thriller involving insanity, ghastly memories, mind-alteration and violence, all wrapped in a story about the search for a missing patient at an island asylum."

"Clearly flawed but entirely involving, Shutter Island is a superb genre thriller elevated by director Martin Scorsese's consummate skill," finds Tim Grierson in Screen. "[T]his occasionally operatic psychological drama weaves an impressive spell, and even though it overstays its welcome, the film is simply too engrossing to deny."

Gaby Wood talks with Emily Mortimer for the Observer.

Updates, 2/14: We've posted a 30-second montage.

"Sensually overwhelming and intellectually undernourished, Shutter Island finds Scorsese positioning himself as the star more than in any of his mainstream works of the past decade," writes Guy Lodge at In Contention. "Part of me thrills to see him commanding his medium so aggressively; a grumpier part wonders why he chose such shallow material in order to do so. Even taking aside the glaring flaws that keep it well below the ranks of a Cape Fear, it would be easier to enjoy the film as a cheerfully disposable potboiler were there not such effort and occasional artistry in its construction."

Brian Brooks reports on the press conference for indieWIRE.

Film-Zeit gathers reviews in German.

Updates, 2/15: "Dennis Lehane's novel... is a doodle, a Paul Auster Lite breather between his tortured Mystic River and the panoramic The Given Day," writes David Edelstein. "But Scorsese draws it out to two hours and twenty minutes of Hitchcock-like tracking shots and bombastic music and shrieking storms and detectives in long coats and fedoras trudging past leering mental patients. It's all deliberately artificial, of course, and the fifties noir tropes do gradually morph into something weirder and more hallucinatory. But even when the detective-story foundation begins to crumble and the gumshoe protagonist (Leonardo DiCaprio) becomes racked with visions of concentration camps and bloody children and babbles about Communist subversives and Nazi experiments, Shutter Island is still suffocatingly movieish." Also in New York, Logan Hill talks with Scorsese about working with DiCaprio.

"Judged as a piece of mainstream narrative cinema, Shutter Island is flawed," finds Time Out London's Dave Calhoun. "Judged, however, as a big-budget experiment at getting inside the head of a disturbed character and channelling almost an entire film through that same mind, it's a ballsy, impressive effort."

"In what is surely the most bizarre rumour to emerge from this year's Berlin film festival, it is whispered that Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro are preparing a remake of Taxi Driver," reports the Guardian's Xan Brooks." Only this time, it transpires, they may have a fresh passenger on board — Lars von Trier could be riding shotgun."

"Shutter Island is an out-of-body pastiche to rival New York, New York, Scorsese's attempt to make a Vincente Minnelli musical," writes the Guardian's Andrew Pulver. "One thing Hitchcock wouldn't have done, though, is throw in sledgehammer replicas of shots from his previous movies."

"Like De Palma's Grand Guignol or Larry Cohen's scabrous comedies or Michael Cimino's own remake (Desperate Hours), Cape Fear goes out of its way to magnify the tensions inherent in family and country," writes Fernando F Croce here in The Notebook. "Its discordant subtext just about howls. Because it's Scorsese, the film is also voracious in its cinephilia."

The Telegraph's Tim Robey: "The plot doesn't so much thicken as curdle with every heebie-jeebie encounter — we've taken a U-turn at the terrific Cape Fear and wound up at Cape Folly."

 

Shutter Island

Updates, 2/17: "138 minutes is dangerously epic for a talky thriller, but you forget the time and even whether the plot makes sense — and if you don't notice, it doesn't matter," writes Nick Pinkerton in the Voice. "Since more attention has gone into filigreeing details into each scene than worrying about the way they'll fit together, the rattletrap engages you moment-to-moment, even as the overall pacing stops and lurches alarmingly.... In his documentary [A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies], Scorsese spoke of the 50s as a time 'when the subtext became as important as the apparent subject matter, or even more important' — and in Shutter Island, his most distinctly 50s movie, he replays the trash culture of the era as the manifestation of an anguished subconscious."

"Given the unwieldiness of the material, the project was probably doomed before Scorsese ever signed on, but while the director brings great attention to giving each scene a densely worked visual signature, his feel for the overall arc of the film is considerably less certain," finds Andrew Schenker in Slant.

"If the material, adapted by Laeta Kalogridis from Dennis Lehane's slippery novel, disappoints, you can still count on Scorsese for punch," writes Joshua Rothkopf in Time Out New York. "So many of his famous sequences are charged with a dream logic — indeed, the whole of After Hours — that when he finally allows himself to make proper nightmares, they blow you away."

"Scorsese manages to go big and small simultaneously, and though the last step is a doozy and redolent of the weaknesses that come with the movie's sources, its inevitability nonetheless carries its own emotional weight," finds Nicolas Rapold in the L Magazine.

Roger Ebert interviews DiCaprio for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Krista Smith talks with Emily Mortimer for Vanity Fair.

Updates, 2/18: "Mr Scorsese in effect forces you to study the threads on the rug he is preparing, with lugubrious deliberateness, to pull out from under you," writes AO Scott in the New York Times. "As the final revelations approach, the stakes diminish precipitously, and the sense that the whole movie has been a strained and pointless contrivance starts to take hold. There are, of course, those who will resist this conclusion, in part out of loyalty to Mr Scorsese, a director to whom otherwise hard-headed critics are inclined to extend the benefit of the doubt. But in this case the equivocation, the uncertainty, seems to come from the filmmaker himself, who seems to have been unable to locate what it is in this movie he cares about, beyond any particular, local formal concern."

"For decades, Scorsese has been the face of American cinema — our Greatest Living Director." Elbert Ventura for Slate: "In the 1970s, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver were hailed as two of the decade's best. In the 1980s, Raging Bull topped many lists. In the 1990s, it was Goodfellas that captured the imagination of critics and movie buffs. But where is the defining Scorsese film of the 2000s? In Film Comment's poll of top critics, not one Scorsese film came within shouting distance of the consensus elite.... Brooding and baroque, [Shutter Island] suggests a fierce intelligence behind the camera and displays a mastery of film vocabulary that can be enthralling. But it's also impersonal, silly, and a waste of time — both his and ours."

Also at Slate, Dana Stevens: "Set piece after set piece makes you go, 'Holy mackerel,' but the entirety of the movie makes you go, 'When's dinner?'" As for Elbert Ventura's piece, "While it's often not clear what Shutter Island is trying to do or be, it's made by an artist who's passionately engaged in his work. Nor is the movie a hollow exercise in style; Scorsese is out to ask the big questions, as becomes clear in a ponderously theme-summarizing exchange between Teddy and an asylum official: 'There's no moral order at all. There's only, can my violence conquer yours?'"

"Using every tool at his disposal, Scorsese honors Lehane's pulp intensity by amplifying the story to the fevered Grand Guignol of a Park Chan-wook movie, or Sam Fuller's asylum classic Shock Corridor," writes Scott Tobias at the AV Club. "There's a purpose to all this madness... but it should be appreciated first as a vivid, waking nightmare."

"Laeta Kalogridis's script is clunky and overly talkative, its forecasting of that sting in the tail unforgivable if telling a standard suspense tale were Scorsese's intention," writes Shaun Brady in the Philadelphia City Paper. "But what he's after is less a two-fisted spook show than an exploration of the human aptitude for violence and the internal struggle it can instigate."

"The film's primary effect is on the senses," writes Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times. "This movie is all of a piece, even the parts that don't appear to fit."

"Before he became resident window-dresser for the Leonardo DiCaprio boutique, Scorsese looked like an artist," writes Armond White in the New York Press. "Now, every film he has directed since hitching himself to DiCaprio has been overweening (Gangs of New York), purposeless (The Aviator) and unoriginal (The Departed).Those problems also wreck Shutter Island, a combo horror film/Hollywood pastiche."

"In a way, Shutter Island became even more hypnotic after I figured out what must be going on, metamorphosing from an outlandish thriller into an indelible character study," writes Mike D'Angelo in  Las Vegas Weekly. "So it's a shame about the expository third act, which places undue emphasis on the silly narrative by spelling everything out in detail so laborious that at one point it actually involves words written on a blackboard.... The Departed may be the better movie overall, but Shutter Island, prioritizing mood and imagery over everything else, makes for superior cinema."

IFC's Matt Singer: "In the character of Teddy, Scorsese and DiCaprio have created an even more powerful portrait of the debilitating nature of guilt than they did in their last collaboration, 2006's The Departed (at the same time, they've also made a more disturbing portrait of mental illness than their collaboration before that, 2003's The Aviator.). And that's ultimately the reason to see Shutter Island."

"Shutter Island doesn't totally escape the lead-footedness that's marked some of Scorsese's recent output," finds Ben Kenigsberg in Time Out Chicago. Still: "Proudly old-fashioned and yet utterly distinctive, this is a pleasing addition to a master's oeuvre."

"[I]t doesn't seem Scorsese is all that interested in having you suspend your disbelief in an artifice contrived by a genius who's seen every film ever made," writes Peter Keough in the Boston Phoenix. "Shutter Island makes me wonder whether he's forgotten how to make his own."

 

Shutter Island

Updates, 2/19: "By an odd quirk of fate, Shutter Island, a big-budget spectacle from the most celebrated living director, reaches us on the same day as The Ghost Writer, made by a director who is nearly as famous for all the wrong reasons." Salon's Andrew O'Hehir: "Although they tell very different stories, they are strikingly similar films: adaptations of pop literature that turn on major third-act revelations, stories whose mysterious protagonists become trapped in situations that are not what they appear to be.... I think we need to switch on the way-back machine and convince Scorsese and Roman Polanski to swap projects, roughly three years ago. Seriously. This is a flawed, baroque, vastly overcooked Scorsese film, which will intrigue some viewers and infuriate many others; it would be beautifully suited to Polanski's coldhearted economy."

"[A]ll Scorsese's villains and most of his heroes, Christ included, are cracked; some are just lucky enough to avoid the consequences," writes Rob Nelson at Moving Image Source. "So what the new film merely reasserts, if with a wallop, is that character in Scorsese's films almost always trumps genre as a governing force, and precisely for the character's instability."

"Shutter Island doesn't reinvent any of the wheels it spins, but it wears its maker's accumulated skills particularly well," writes Jonathan Kiefer in the Faster Times. "And it attests again to Scorsese's faith in DiCaprio, who might appear implausible at first as a troubled Greatest Generation war veteran but ultimately delivers the requisite anguish in spades."

Chris Barsanti at PopMatters: "The film is a flotsam and jetsam creation that yet manages, throughout the nesting-doll of head-slapping revelations that punctuate its last quarter, to deliver something that we have not really seen before from Scorsese: the fully-felt genre film."

Updates, 2/20: "Shutter Island is beautiful, the most visually arresting film Scorsese has made since Gangs of New York, and the most stylistically consistent, and the most justified and organic in its specific bold choices, since at least Casino, and probably as far back as Goodfellas," writes Bill Ryan. "[Y]ou'll have seen Glenn Kenny — who was quite keen on the movie — wonder if possibly some of his goodwill towards it has to do with his state of mind at the time he saw it. Well, let me offer my own bit of justification for feeling the way I do about Shutter Island: this is the kind of shit I like! I love film noir, I love Gothic horror, stories about storms and the criminally insane, and their possibly evil doctors. And I love it best when it's taken seriously."

"Scorsese may be slumming, but all directors should slum with such nutty verve," writes Paul Matwychuk. "Shutter Island isn't without its pleasures, but anyone who ranks this alongside Scorsese's prime achievements needs his head examined."

The Atlantic Wire gathers four reviews you haven't seen here.

Updates, 2/22: Anthony Lane in the New Yorker: "In a celebrated riff on Casablanca, Umberto Eco wrote, 'Two clichés make us laugh but a hundred clichés move us, because we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion.' Shutter Island is that reunion, and that shrine."

Nick Davis: "A farrago, sometimes in a way that's easy to indulge, but you still wind up uncertain which makes less sense: the bonkers narrative we think we're watching (though we're never exactly fooled) or the climactic explanations. As if the gangrenous photography isn't off-putting enough, the disastrous marriage of over-plotting to self-undermining 'suspense' becomes awfully hard to take.... Sadly, a horrible case of reverse-proportion mandates that the actors with the largest parts give the weakest performances, including yet another limp outing from DiCaprio, who's starting to seem Swankish: i.e., nearly irredeemable unless every single other element is working perfectly around him, which it certainly isn't here."

"Those who complain that 138 minutes is way to long for such a basic plot have completely missed the point (and the myriad pleasures) that Shutter Island has on offer," argues Kurt Halfyard at Twitch.

Scorsese fills out Vanity Fair's Proust Questionnaire.

Gina Piccalo talks with Lehane for the Daily Beast.

"When Paramount decided to move Shutter Island from October to February, some wondered if the studio had a bigger headache on its hands than the migraines felt by Leonardo DiCaprio's character in the film," writes Steven Zeitchik in the Los Angeles Times. "But like a short-track speed skater at the Winter Olympics, the studio showed that when it came to releasing a movie, it wasn't how you started but how you finished.... Most box-office experts had estimated that a $35-million opening would be the benchmark for success. As it was, the $40-million figure marked the biggest opening for either Scorsese or DiCaprio, the latter of whom had previously broken the $30-million mark only once, with the conman dramedy Catch Me If You Can seven years ago."

Updates, 2/23: "So I saw Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese's ten-ton unofficial remake of Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane, with what appears to be some outtakes from Inglourious Basterds thrown in and the killer bikes thrown out," writes Phil Nugent. "My strongest reaction to it was the the killer bikers were missed. Sometimes, I think that Scorsese has not just declined, but that he's declined in the saddest way imaginable for a great movie director, especially the kind of director he used to be."

Noah Forrest at Movie City News: "It's a testament to Scorsese that he can still inspire heated discussions, even when he makes a middling film, but if any other director had made the film, there would be no discussion at all."

Updates, 2/24: Michael Koresky in Reverse Shot: "Scorsese trumps up what might have been a neat pulp knock-off into a wild-eyed stab at everything from government mental health control to HUAC to the Holocaust to the H-bomb — in other words, this isn't merely a film that takes place in 1950s America but it has to be a film about 1950s America. To do so, he gets lugubrious, constantly telling and showing, where a healthy dose of ambiguity might have done the trick, especially in the film's endless climactic flashback to an overly glorified act of unimaginable violence."

The New Yorker's Richard Brody: "In Shutter Island, Scorsese lets his crazies out with a torrential, terrifying ferocity — but one which, for all of its intensity, is captured in controlled, precise, even chilled, but no less demonic visions. Yet here Scorsese plumbs the terrors not merely of the personal psyche and of society at large but also of the cinema itself, the cinema he loves and grew up with. For a cinephile of such depth and intensity, the effect is of a bitter confession."

Updates, 2/25: "The upshot is a terrible waste of energy," writes Duncan Shepherd in the San Diego Reader, "and indeed a great deal of energy unmistakably went into it, primarily that trademark overdirection that serves always as a sort of methodology of self-hype: the flash pans, the vertiginous overhead shots, the pumpkin-head closeups, the portentous tracking shots, the ponderous slo-mo, the full range of eye-grabbing gimmicks by which Scorsese sells, sells, sells his stuff. We like to see a director taking command, but when the material is piffle it can have the effect of travesty — rather like an orchestral transcription of 'Itsy-Bitsy Spider' in the style of Beethoven."

"It wants to be a drama and a mystery and spends so much time trying to meld the two it ends up being neither," writes Greg Ferrara. "In the end, I half-heartedly recommend it but only for those interested in seeing the technical virtuosity of a now seasoned master of the cinema."

Anne Thompson talks with Lehane about seeing three of his novels adapted.

Update, 2/26: "Two extravagantly gifted filmmakers whose gothic whimsy (Burton) and grand set pieces (Scorsese) have become brands for hire, both men seem to have made almost identical Faustian pacts with the mainstream by submerging their talents in a string of adaptations and remakes at once overblown and oddly empty, packed with ho-hum spectacle but not much else," writes the Guardian's Danny Leigh.

 

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