Shutter Island | The Hurt Locker

Cinema reviews for Feb. 25
Shutter Island

Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch, Elias Koteas, Robin Bartlett, Christopher Denham, Nellie Sciutto, Joseph Sikora, Curtiss Cook, Raymond Anthony Thomas, Joseph McKenna, Ruby Jerins. Written by Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane.

Shutter Island is a maddening film, an exquisitely made but frustratingly generic thriller that only eventually rises above its source material (a novel by Dennis Lehane) after a two-hour slog. It´s directed by Martin Scorsese, who hasn´t made a habit of making bad films; what´s his worst – New York, New York? Cape Fear? Shutter Island falls into this company.

And yet, most seem to be giving it a pass. Or more than a pass: comparisons to Kubrick and The Shining have been floating around. That´s nonsense, but I´m giving it a pass, too; as much as I disliked a good portion of the movie, I can heartily recommend giving it a watch and drawing your own conclusions.

(Spoiler warning: this movie is so predictable that any plot discussion will lead to unwanted revelations. If you want to go in fresh – and you should – don´t read any reviews, or press material – even the tagline gives too much away, in a cutesy wink-wink way – and whatever you do, don´t watch the trailer.)

Yeah, don´t watch the trailer. I´d probably seen it 20 times over the past year, as Shutter Island was originally scheduled for a Fall ´09 release, and the trailer has been a major part of the rotation in cinemas since last Spring. But one viewing is enough. It gives away the basics of the ending to the movie (to astute viewers, anyway) and leads to a frustrating experience while watching the feature; you´re praying this well-made film doesn´t lead to the generic finale you know is coming.

The year is 1954. Shutter Island is an island off the coast of Massachusetts that houses a mental institution. Think Alcatraz, for the insane. One of their patients is missing: Rachel Solano, a mother who drowned her children. Federal Marshalls Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are called in to investigate. Make that Feduhral Mahshulls, as DiCaprio doesn´t hesitate to underline the regional dialect to no affect other than to distract.

Something doesn´t seem right about this place, Teddy thinks: about Dr. Cawley (Ben Kinsgley), who is hesitant to cooperate with the investigation, about Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), a possible former Nazi who seems to enjoy provoking Teddy. About the creepy, frightened inmates he encounters along the way, played by familiar faces like Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, and Elias Koteas.

But something doesn´t seem right about Teddy, we think: he has sea sickness, headaches, and two sets of flashbacks, one involving a WWII concentration camp, the other involving his dead wife. Yes, he´s our traditional unreliable narrator/protagonist, and Scorsese doesn´t hesitate to underline the obvious three times over.

Aside from the story, Shutter Island is quite wonderfully cinematic; it isn´t a horror film, not really, but works in a similar manner, dripping with atmosphere and an overbearing sense of dread. There´s no release, either, just a slow-burn tension that builds throughout. The music, arranged in part by Robbie Robertson, aids a great deal – particularly a haunting final tune over the credits. So does the trenchant cinematography by Robert Richardson, which makes wonderful use of long corridors and dark corners.

Production detail is flawless, capturing a 50s look that´s enriched by Scorsese´s noir-ish 50s feel for the material. The acting also helps: Ruffalo and Kingsley are especially good, particularly late in the film, and Ted Levine has a great scene discussing the ‘killer instinct´.

But that story, it´s a real deal-breaker. Shutter Island could have worked wonderfully. If it were played as straight drama, if it were left ambiguous; if it did anything but fall into the generic thriller trap. I mean, it´s only a very small step above Gothika or straight-to-DVD material, and no matter how good a filmmaker Scorsese is, this is one thing he cannot overcome.

I see the potential in there because after the big reveal, where most any other thriller would have ended, Shutter Island continues for another 20 minutes. And now, with all the cards out on the table, the film finally pays off, and the drama in the material – latent for the previous two hours – finally comes to life.

These twenty minutes save the film; the rest of it could go either way. Here´s two entertaining reviews, an all-out rave from Variety´s Todd McCarthy and a vicious pan from The New York Times´ A.O. Scott. The truth lies somewhere in-between, but either way the film is worth seeing and judging for yourself.


Shutter Island | The Hurt Locker


The Hurt Locker

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Evangeline Lilly, Christian Camargo, Suhail Aldabbach, Christopher Sayegh, Nabil Koni, Sam Spruell, Sam Redford, Feisal Sadoun, Barrie Rice, Imad Dadudi, Erin Gann, Justin Campbell, Malcolm Barrett. Written by Mark Boal.

Eighteen months since it started touring the festival circuit, a year since a DVD screener was leaked on the internet, eight months removed from a wide release in the US and two since a local DVD release, Kathryn Bigelow´s The Hurt Locker finally hits Czech cinemas.

It´s about time. No beating around the bush: The Hurt Locker was the best film I saw in 2009, and one of the best of the decade (Roger Ebert ranks it #2 in his top ten of the 00s). Other bests? It´s the best modern war film I´ve seen, and one of the most clearly best-directed movies in recent memory. In ten days time, Bigelow will have an Oscar for direction, which will join numerous other awards for the film. 

A quote from author and former war correspondent Chris Hedges opens the film: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”

War is a drug, and William James (Jeremy Renner) is a junkie. He´s an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) Staff Sergeant in Iraq who would rather manually diffuse a bomb than send in the robot. “How many bombs have you disarmed?” Colonel Reed (David Morse) asks him. “Eight-hundred and seventy-three.” “That´s hot shit.” Hot shit, indeed.

But his colleagues in the bomb disposal unit don´t care for his methods; Segeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) just want to get out of Iraq alive. On-screen text counts down the days left in Bravo Company´s rotation.

The screenplay by Mark Boal (In the Valley of Elah) forgoes a typical plot or narrative thrust in favor of days-in-the-life vignettes. Those vignettes are usually scenes of action or war or bomb disposal, with plenty of interest by themselves to keep us glued to our seats; only by the end of the film do we realize we have been watching a character-based drama. Beautiful writing.

The action scenes are handled absolutely perfectly: we´re always aware of time and place, where the characters are in relation to their surroundings, and the tension – unbearable at times – flows naturally from the information we´re given. No “which wire to cut?”, only one ticking clock. These are pros who know what they´re doing (the characters in the film, and the filmmakers behind the scenes), and we´re aware of and terrified by the inherent danger in the situation without being fed manufactured drama.

What was the last bomb disposal movie? Blown Away, with Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones? When was the last good one? This is a genre that hasn´t been properly exploited.

Renner, previously seen as Jeffrey Dahmer in Dahmer and in supporting roles in The Assassination of Jesse James… and 28 Weeks Later, is the big breakout star here, earning an Oscar nomination for his work. He´s excellent as the embodiment of that adrenaline drive inside of all of us. But equally good are Mackie and Geraghty as his level-headed colleagues.

Kathryn Bigelow has directed a number of cult-y favorites (Near Dark, Point Break, Strange Days) that never really garnered much critical acclaim; her most recent film was 2002´s big budget mediocrity K-19: The Widowmaker. She´s always been adept at handling action, but there is nothing in her résumé to suggest the kind of masterful filmmaking that is The Hurt Locker; yet here it is, staring us in the face. I’m in awe of this movie.

If it sounds like I have a hard-on for this movie, that´s because yeah, I do. The Hurt Locker has a surprisingly profound effect, reaching past the war movie setting into something far deeper: it digs into the male psyche, or at least a particular male psyche, more than any other movie I’ve seen. And it took a female director, go figure.


Also opening: Doktor od Jezera hrochů (showtimes), a comedy from director Zdeněk Troška (Kameňák) starring Jaroslav Šmíd, Eva Holubová, Jiří Langmajer, Tereza Bebarová, and Alžběta Stanková. Screening in Czech.

And: Katka (showtimes), a documentary from director Helena Třeštíková. Screening in Czech.

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