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Dave on film: shuddering on “Shutter Island”

Dave Taylor //February 26, 2010//

Dave on film: shuddering on “Shutter Island”

Dave Taylor //February 26, 2010//

This week you have two choices: a safe, relatively shallow biopic about a brilliant thinking from the 1800s, or a creepy film about cops and insane asylums from one of the masters of cinema, Martin Scoresese. Which is a better choice for your weekend dollars and popcorn purchases? Well, as is often the case, that depends.

Review: Shutter Island

The film version of Dennis Lehane’s creepy psychological thriller Shutter Island has taken a while to get on the big screen, but it was worth the wait. With Leonardo DiCaprio in the starring role as US Marshall Teddy Daniels, it’s one of the best psychological thrillers in quite a while. With its leisurely pace, moody ensemble and positively sinister exteriors, it’s also a nice reminder that intense movies don’t need to involve massive explosions, zombies, vampires or the wholesale slaughter of innocents.

Set during a stormy weekend in 1954, Shutter Island, located in Boston harbor, is the home of Ashcliff, a mental hospital for the criminally insane, “the only facility of its kind in the whole world: people too dangerous for anywhere else,” as Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) explains to Daniels during the opening scene. Daniels, and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are Boston-based cops sent to the facility to help track down Rachel (Patricia Clarkson), an inmate and psychotic killer who has gone missing and ostensibly poses a threat to the Boston populace.

Daniels is only a few years out of the Army, where he was traumatized by his part in the liberation of the German concentration camp Dachau at the tail end of World War II. His flashbacks are shocking and create great sympathy, even as we begin to wonder who are the patients, who are the doctors, and who’s really crazy in this place?

Shutter Island isn’t a fast-paced horror film. In fact, I can’t recall a single startling scene. The feel of this extraordinarily well assembled movie is more of a slow-motion train wreck, a story that unfolds in creepy, sinister and disturbing ways, even as you realize not everything is as it seems, nor is everyone who you think they are.

Ashcliff is divided into three different wards: Wards A and B are for male and female patients, and the entire area looks more like a pleasant country estate than anything else, with sprawling grounds and beautifully tended flower gardens. None of the patients we see in these wards seems particularly dangerous or crazy, certainly not after ominous pronouncement by Cawley.

Ward C is another story, a former Civil War fortress with sheer multi-story walls interrupted only sporadically by tiny windows and with armed guards patrolling the roof night and day. Ward C is for the most dangerous patients and the entire building only holds 24.

The residents of Ward C also including Andrew Laeddis (Elias Koteas), who set the apartment fire that killed Daniel’s wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams). Aule is convinced that it’s revenge that’s brought Daniels to Shutter Island in the first place: to track down and kill Laeddis in retaliation for the death of his wife. For her part, Dolores keeps appearing in Teddy’s troubled dreams.

The dream sequences are hallucinatory and visually stunning. In one it’s raining ashes and while Teddy hugs her as tightly as he can, Dolores turns to dust and crumbles away. In another he revisits Dachau but finds that it’s an even more surreal world. In a film about sanity and insanity, you’ll do well to pay close attention to what happens – and who shows up – in these dreams, as they are clues to what’s actually happening in the story.

Another clue that appears early in the film about what’s transpiring is when Cawley explains to the Marshalls that the problem they’re having trying to help the vanished Rachel is “her refusal to acknowledge her crime.” Shutter Island is ultimately about the moral grey area between those who admit their crimes and those who aren’t even aware that they were involved in a crime, let alone acknowledge what they’ve done.

To be fair, Shutter Island is a difficult story to tell on screen, because the weirder it gets, the more internal inconsistencies appear and the more you risk the danger of toying with the viewer. What if the scene you just saw wasn’t real? And the one before it? What if later you realize that they actually were real? After a while, it just ends up being confusing. For example, we gain great sympathy for Daniels through his traumatic flashbacks from the War, but are they real? Did he really experience the liberation of Dachau while in the Army?

I’m already a big fan of Ben Kingsley, ever since his brilliant work in Gandhi, but in addition to his great, menacing performance, I have to compliment the entire cast: it’s distressingly rare that a film comes out where every performance is great, but from DiCaprio and Ruffalo on down the list, everyone really digs into their part and brings it to life, innocent or sinister.

The surprise twist in the film was cool, too, though I won’t reveal it here. My disappointment with Shutter Island was that the ending didn’t tap into the inherent ambiguity of a story about truth and fantasy, about reality and hallucinations, about paranoid delusions and secrets too horrible to share. It could have, but instead, we’re left with a film that is beautifully assembled, stunningly photographed, superbly acted yet a bit of a let down. I’ll recommend it nonetheless and will be curious to see what you thought of the last 20 minutes.

Review: Creation

Shutter Island sound too scary? Then how about a film about Charles Darwin, one of the most profound thinkers of the modern era, with his groundbreaking theory of evolution and idea that rather than being created by God in “his image”, we evolved from monkeys. But who was Charles Darwin and where did he get this radical idea? That’s the story behind Creation, as it explains in the opening titles: “Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species”, first published in 1859, has been called the single biggest idea in the history of thought. This is the story of how it came to be written…”

The film opens with Darwin (Paul Bettany) relating a story to his daughter Annie (Martha West) about an expedition to Tierra del Fuego, where three native children were taken by a British naval expedition, taught “Christian manners,” even met the King and Queen when they arrived in London. When they return the children to their homeland, however, they promptly tear off their clothes and return to the savage ways they’re familiar with. Nature or nurture?

As Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones) explains to Darwin early in the film: “You’ve killed God, Mr. Darwin, and good riddance to the vindictive old bugger,” to which Darwin almost faints, he’s so shocked at being confronted with the blunt implications of his theories. Huxley then entreats Darwin to pull all of his notes together and create a book about his survival of the fittest theories, a book that can be their rallying point to push out the parsons and beetle collectors and turn science into a respectable profession.

Oct 1858, he’s on Laudanum and has an ongoing stomach ache and shaking hands. He experiments with selective breeding of pigeons and is convinced that all breeds come from the common rock pigeon. “nature breeds forhealth, while humans breed for appearance.” Ultimately, Darwin, for all his brilliance, was a dabbler, and if he hadn’t been pushed, probably would never have published more than sporadic notes and observations.

Darwin reminisces during a picnic about his time on the H.M.S. Beagle, but we don’t even see an exterior of the ship and all too quickly, it’s back off screen and we’re in picnic listening to people talk, talk, talk. His friends present the two basic theories of the world: either nature lives in harmony and is at peace, or nature is a battlefield and all creatures are at constant war. It’s the latter that Darwin believes and that’s what serves as the basis of theories.

A fascinating, though not entirely explicable, series of high speed flash forward and backwards views shows us the death -> life -> death cycle, with a finch dying just to feed the creatures of the forest floor. It’s a dream, and we gain the insight of how heavily his theories and views of the world weigh down Darwin. The result? He opens up a chest of notes, articles and clippings and commits to turning it all into a book, the book that ultimately is published as The Origin Of Species.

“What are you so afraid of,” Annie asks, “it’s just a theory.”

“It’s not just a theory, though,” Charles answers, “Suppose the whole world stops believing that God had any sort of plan for us. Nothing mattered, not love, trust, fate, not honor, just brute survival. Apart from everything else, it would break your mother’s heart…”

We learn how Darwin learned to appreciate the innate intelligence and toolmaking abilities of orangutans through his relationship with Jenny, the first orang brought to the London Zoo from Africa. We don’t learn, however, how it was that he gained access to her cage nor how he could spend weeks studying her without having to earn a living. This is typical of what ails Creation, a lack of exploring why things transpired or from where his radical ideas arose.

Later, Annie gets into trouble with Reverend Innes (Jeremy Northam), causing Charles to get upset and setting in motion the core conflict of the film, between Darwin and his theories of evolution and Innes and his unshakable faith in God and the divine order of things. This same fight rages today with the so-called intelligent design advocates and the theory of evolution, but, again, there’s a lack of depth to the way this topic is addressed, as if Darwin is possessed by his theories but doesn’t think deeply of them and their implications to people, particularly his troubled and beloved wife.

The illness of his favorite child, Annie, pushes Darwin to the church and then to reject the whims of a cruel and unthinking God when she dies, finally finding the motivation to finish The Origin of Species. Where the film could have offered up some insight, it offers instead Charles explaining to a colleague that “since Annie’s death, Emma has found solace in religion, and I in science.”

The performances are good, the sets are as you would expect from a costume drama, but in the end, Creation doesn’t answer any questions, it just lets events unfold without any attempt to offer anything deeper or more profound. It’s all about “how” without any attempt at “why”, and this will ultimately relegate the film to the “period biopic” bin in the rental store.

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