With Hugo, director Martin Scorsese uses modern cinematic technology to pay tribute and give life to the magical roots of film history. In doing so he has created what exists as his most personal film. You can feel his adoration for filmmaking in every frame of this fantastical odyssey. The attention to detail is spectacular. The cinematography, art direction, and costume design all work in tandem to flesh out the dense and gorgeous whimsicality of a Paris train station where the majority of Hugo’s story unfolds. Howard Shore’s score also adds to the film’s fairytale aesthetic. Hugo also boasts the single best use of 3D that I’ve seen in film, making the shots of snowfall and steaming pipes all the more engrossing. All of theseelements operate together in a way that reflects the clockwork and machinery so thematically inherent in the film. Hugo is ultimately about finding one’s purpose and how one can use any fashion of artist expression, be it filmmaking, magic, or literature, to operate in the world around them.
Martin Scorsese is a great filmmaker. I think that’s a fair and obvious statement to make. At this point in the cinematic game it’s pretty objective.However, it’d taste a lie to say that any of his films have made a major impact on me. I’ve seen a slew of them, especially his notable ones, and I have loved maybe two or three of them. And even with those films, I fail to have any emotional connection with the events unfolding on screen. This is fundamentally an issue of taste. Scorsese simply does not make films with much heart, though as a technical filmmaker he excels. And this is the reason why Shutter Island is the most apt film for him to sink his teeth into.
This 1950s noir thriller, based on Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name opens, with Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), a U.S. Federal Marshal with a strange aversion to water, on a ferry to Shutter Island. He and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are headed to Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane in order to investigate the disappearance of a patient. The further Teddy Daniels probes the crevasses of the island, desperately searching for secrets, the more twisted and cryptic the tale becomes. What dirty deeds are executed in this hospital? How trustworthy are the asylum’s authority figures? Is there really a 67th patient? To speak of anything more would be to give away key plot elements that heavily factor into the rest of this dreary tale. Though if one were to pay any semblance of attention while watching the trailer, he or should would easily be able to tell where this story is going.
However, the strength of this film does not lie in its ability to shroud the mind in layers of uncertainty – though it does a sufficient job in this regard. Its power comes from Martin Scorsese’s audacious filmmaking. Shutter Island, not unlike Spielberg’s Minority Report or War of the Worlds, shows an established director recreating the mood and atmosphere of a very specific genre. Scorsese relishes in this opportunity, and his joy for cinema permeates nearly every frame in the film. In an early scene our two Federal Marshals are being driven from the ferry dock to the front gate of the foreboding institution. The camera glides across the damp and desaturated terrain while Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Symphony No. 3: Passacaglia – Allegro” overbearingly scores the mise-en-scene. There’s little subtlety to be found here. The film wants, nay, needs you to know exactly what it is. There are many sequences like this, one in particular occurring in a ward in which the lighting dims, electricity fizzles, and insane patients cackle in the ether. It’s as if Scorsese is giddily holding your hand through a haunted house at an amusement park.
Naturally, with any Scorsese picture, a top not cast has been assembled for Shutter Island. In his fourth film with the director, Leonardo DiCaprio proves once again that he’s a glutton for self-destruction. Seriously, the man loves his tortured leading men. His style of acting is oft criticized for being mannered, but his earnestness pays off here as Teddy Daniels. He’s a persistent, hardboiled cop and remains convinced of his motivations until the bitter end when things may not seem so solid. And his final scenes are absolutely heartbreaking. Mark Ruffalo plays it with enough naivety, inspiring off kilter notions and Ben Kingsley’s understated yet commanding enough to make you question his trustworthiness. Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine and Max Von Sydow all shine in their minimal roles. The first four appear in about one scene each and blow it out of the water.
From beginning to end Shutter Island pushes that sense of claustrophobic paranoia that not only plagues our conflicted protagonist but also reflects the mental state of society during the post WWII and Cold War eras of the 1950s. It’s no wonder mental asylum takes place on a secluded island ostensibly in the middle of nowhere. These elements are exceptionally germane for a psychological thriller. Many pride themselves in their ability to catch where this film is going early on. This isn’t surprising, as we’ve seen enough Mementos and Fight Clubs that we’re privy to the tricks of the trade. But here it isn’t where the story is going. Instead it’s the way it’s told. We’ve seen this story before, but not through the eyes of Scorsese. Shutter Island isn’t flawless. Its screenplay gets wrapped up in its exposition and it tries a mite too hard, but they’re trifles compared to the film’s pure cinematic finesse.
So venture off to Shutter Island. Be disturbed by its imagery. Get caught up in the storm. Second-guess yourself. I promise you’ll have a lot of fun.