Saturday, April 16, 2011

Just how much can Leonardo di Caprio hallucinate in one year?

Newspaper-style review for my Journalism class: 

It seemed that, in 2010, the bar was set fairly high for films to shock their audiences with extreme realism in animation and special effects or over-the-top plot twists. This, of course, is a brilliant way to have a film become “what everybody is talking about.”
            The best example of this is Christopher Nolan’s Inception, where the audience is left wondering what parts of the movie were simply figments of main character Leonardo DiCaprio’s imagination. But before audiences were left to wonder what scenes in Inception took place in DiCaprio’s head, they were left to wonder which scenes in Shutter Island took place…in DiCaprio’s head.
            Shutter Island, directed by Martin Scorsese, came out in January of 2010, five months before Inception’s high-grossing release. It follows the story of Marshall Teddy Daniels, (played by DiCaprio,) who is sent to an isolated island off the coast of Boston to investigate the escape of a mental patient from a somewhat experimental criminal institution. He is given a new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo,) for the job, and the men trudge through the gray weather of the Atlantic while discussing their military history in thick Bostonian accents. Soon after reaching the island, they learn that things have gone amiss.
            The thing that people talked about most in this movie was the plot twist in the end, which is almost Shyamalan-esque. Scorsese very effectively leads up to this, and setting the audience just a bit off balance throughout the film. Within thirty seconds of reaching the island, DiCaprio and Ruffalo are greeted by guards armed with loaded machine guns. The escaped patient leaves both pairs of her shoes in her room when she flees. All of the patients in the asylum are very clearly reciting their testimonies from a script. And when our dynamic duo tries to leave the island, DiCaprio’s hallucinations of his dead wife, and then a severe hurricane, stop them.
Unfortunately, regardless of the build up, the twist is quite disappointing—in my opinion, the disconnect from the main story is too great and it ends a foul taste to the end of the film. The point of view even changes; throughout the film, we follow along with the adventures of DiCaprio in a series of flashbacks and intense close-ups, but when the twist occurs, the camera turns on a dime and we spend the rest of the film looking, confused and almost accusatorily at the main character.
            The plot arc in the rest of the film is that of a typical psychological horror downward spiral, with his hallucinations of his wife and gory, grainy flashbacks to the German war camps becoming more and more severe as the movie progresses. This is brilliantly foreshadowed, and the central theme of the movie embodied, in a single line: when the local sheriff describes how rigorous the security measures are for “Ward C,” the building for especially violent patients, DiCaprio replies, “You would think insanity was contagious.”
            This, as well as the paranoia that comes with a film taking place in 1954, is what I consider to be the best part of the film. The plot is threaded through with straight-up Cold War crazy, which interacts beautifully with the themes of insanity intrinsic to a film taking place in an asylum. About half way through the film, DiCaprio essentially abandons the task of finding the escaped patient and instead focuses on uncovering the government conspiracy and medical experiments he is convinced are taking place on the island. His lunacy is fed by his post war paranoia that Nazi like experiments are happening at the hospital, and uncited evidence that HUAC is funding the project. Juxtaposed with this is the unwavering hallucinated image of the wife, dressed in a perfectly housewifely yellow dress, and the marshal’s occasional descriptions of and flashbacks to their picturesque suburban life together. The subtext of the movie, which I consider to be much more fascinating than the puzzley plot, exposes the ugly underbelly of paranoia and fear that is such an important part of the era that we remember as I Love Lucy and Leave it to Beaver.
            Even though Shutter Island and Inception have similarly twisty plots, Leonardo DiCaprio, beautiful cinematography, and hallucinations of tragically dead wives, the former made about half as much money as Nolan’s blockbuster hit. This has a lot to do with the marketing of Shutter Island, and the fact that it’s somewhat in between genres; it has the romance that directors are trying to work into “masculine” movies to appeal to a female audience (plus Leo), it has the plot characteristic of a psychological horror, almost (but just almost,) enough guns and explosions to be an action movie, and enough historical references and implications to be historical fiction—and it was marketed as a slasher.
            However, considering the reputation of Scorsese and the quality of this film, it certainly deserves more credit than it was given when it was released—though the failed attempt at mind-blowing plot twist does take away significantly from the film, it redeems itself with the thoughtful themes of insanity and paranoia. It was over shadowed by Inception, but in terms of plot, visuals, and especially the nearly identical performances of Leonardo DiCaprio, this movie should have earned just as much credit as the Oscar winning box office hit. With the plot twist, this film gets a three out of five stars, but if we were just rating the first hour and forty five minutes, I’d give it a solid four. 

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