Sunday, June 13, 2010

'Shutter Island,' Revisited

I reviewed Shutter Island for Screen International back in February, and at that time I praised it, although I said it was "clearly flawed" and noted that it "overstays its welcome." Well, I watched it again last night -- and I have to say that I think the thing's very nearly a damn masterpiece.

For a few weeks now, I had been curious to revisit this suspense thriller, but I expected that knowing how it all played out would make it a little less engaging the second time through, especially at 139 minutes. Without giving away anything, I'll just say that, much to my surprise, the exact opposite proved true: Shutter Island emerges as a far more engrossing experience precisely because you don't have to spend a single second worrying about what's going to happen. Instead, you can fully luxuriate in Martin Scorsese's utter mastery of his form, Robert Richardson's hullucinatory cinematography (which, it should be noted, looks quite different than his work on another recent period/WWII-era film, Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds), a great collection of songs and instrumental scores compiled by Robbie Robertson, and Thelma Schoonmaker's superb editing that subtly adds to the growing sense of paranoia and madness that slowly envelops the film.

And then there's the cast. On first viewing, I found Mark Ruffalo's performance as Leonardo DiCaprio's partner to be a little too affected, but now I recognize how nicely modulated it is and essential for the storytelling. The supporting parts are all wonderfully handled -- Jackie Earle Haley, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley -- but, really, how great is DiCaprio in this? Again, a second viewing allows you to focus on his performance, and since you know how the story will resolve itself, you can observe even more clearly how beautifully he navigates his character's particular narrative arc.

But let's talk more about Scorsese. As someone who doesn't automatically worship everything Scorsese made up to and including Goodfellas, I couldn't care less about recent arguments that he's become "just" a Hollywood genre director -- the supreme confidence of Shutter Island and The Departed is a treat, one we should be celebrating. And how many Hollywood genre movies have the psychological insight, passion, poignancy and truly riveting sequences as Shutter Island? A film like this may not be particularly "deep" because it supposedly lacks the essential autobiographical or thematic richness that all great capital-A "art" demands, but surely some consideration needs to be given for a movie so astonishingly compelling and entertaining. If that's not the sign of a great director, what is?

Around the same time as Shutter Island came out, Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer opened, giving audiences two examples of acclaimed auteurs who were allegedly "slumming" by making pulpy genre movies. But look at the craftsmanship and tension in those movies -- are any Hollywood thrillers going to offer anything remotely comparable this year? We should be so lucky. Back in the spring, I thought The Ghost Writer was the better of the two films -- now I'm not so sure. I can hardly wait to revisit Polanski's thriller to see what surprises await me.