Friday, 12 March 2010
With "Shutter Island", Martin Scorsese has perfected his most effective story-telling tool. It's not the exceptionally atmospheric art-direction, the gloomy, expressionist visuals or the twisty narrative. It isn't the witty script that zings up the occasionally B-movie dialogue with strong characterisations, and it's not some new, cutting edge digital effect (of which there are few in this film).
It's Leonardo DiCaprio. Or more specifically, his once-boyish mug.
DiCaprio has, like many talented-but-pretty actors, worked hard to prove himself more than his pin-up appearance, and his alliance with Scorsese has been his biggest triumph to this end. Eschewing the goofy disguises favoured by Johnny Depp, the ex-Romeo has made a habit of playing morally ambiguous characters, plagued by inner-demons which make them ugly from the inside out.
Unlike many good-looking male performers, he excels in revealing emotion un-self consciously through his facial and vocal range, making his every expression or utterance seem almost involuntary. The Artist Formerly Known as Arnie Grape's face tells the entire story here. He is on screen in every scene (if memory serves), and gets a lot of tight, claustrophobic close-ups; meaning his performance is key to the atmosphere Scorsese is creating. Every bit of fear, anger, despair, grief, rage, hope and horror is scrunched into Danny Archer's mush, and we can't help but feel every moment of it.
Of course, this is what we expect of any performance, but it is rare to see any actor, let alone a star like Billy Costigan, willing to make themselves look un-attractive in such a way for the sake of a film.
And what of the film, incidentally? Scorsese has crafted an old-fashioned thriller which people will refer to as "Hitchcockian" and "Gothic" (I'm sure I would too, if I knew what those words meant), with psychological/supernatural elements.
Jack Dawson's face is attached to a character called Teddy Daniels, a Federal Marshal sent to investigate the disappearance of a patient at an island-based mental-institute in the mid-fifties. What follows is something like a cross between "The Wicker Man" and last year's comic-book video-game "Batman: Arkham Asylum" as Teddy begins to suspect conspiracy and evil-deeds are afoot; even as he is plagued by hallucinations of his dead wife. Is Teddy losing it? Is he Paranoid? Or is there really something sinister going on within the walls of the institution? And even if there is, will he be able to get to the main land with his life and sanity intact?
The film is amazing to look at: the costumes and sets are a lavish combination of film-noir grit and gothic (I know) grandeur, waves crash on jagged rocks, psychedelic hallucinations creep out of bottomless shadows, the architecture looms, and there's a civil-war fort turned mental ward that resembles a level from "Silent Hill" (two video game references in one post! Let the dumbing-down commence!), making for as rich and varied a tapestry as Scorsese has ever presented us with.
Where the film fell down a little, for me, was in the predictability of the plot. I wanted to be led down these twisty, dark passageways with little to no idea of where I would end up, but a theory which I formulated within the first fifteen minutes turned out to be a case-solver. I should be a Federal Marshal. In a film.
This is not a major criticism, but it did dampen the impact of the supposedly earth-shattering climax when I was left thinking "I knew that would happen". On the whole, "Shutter Island" is a journey through the unknown that is well worth taking, but don't be surprised if you end up exactly where you expect.