By at February 21, 2010 | 8:38 am | Print

by Norm Schrager
4.5 / 5 stars

Shutter Island Movie PosterFor decades, Martin Scorsese has been peering into the psyches of troubled men, from Travis Bickle to Howard Hughes. Teddy Daniels may very well be the most troubled of them all. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Shutter Island, Daniels is a U.S. Marshal in the 1950s with buried nightmares from his past and a potential one in front of him: an isolated mental institution requiring his help. Working with his modern acting inspiration for the fifth time, Scorsese turns Dennis Lehane’s novel into a melange of closely related film genres: creepy horror thriller, tightly wound suspense tale, melancholic character study. As one melds into another, Shutter Island emerges as a carefully orchestrated masterwork.

Scorsese aficionados may expect that, but the legendary director has had stumbles, an inevitable result of a movie life as long as his (The Age of Innocence, Bringing Out The Dead, and The Aviator still feel overdone.) But Shutter Island would stand out for Scorsese regardless of his career climate, making it even more satisfying that it follows a film as wild and arresting as The Departed. Like that crime chronicle, Shutter Island demands that all the moments of its tantalizing script (by Laeta Kalogridis, Alexander) work exceptionally well together, not just as connected segments. The film pays that off, living as a memorable total package.

Don’t let that fool you though. Scorsese still has the ability to burn a disturbing image or two (or three) into your mind, so it leaks all over your impression of the film as the rest continues to seep in. With Shutter Island, Lehane’s original narrative is already locked and loaded to trouble the mind. Daniels (DiCaprio) and his new partner (Mark Ruffalo) are charged with scouring an island penitentiary inhabited by the most dangerous, criminally insane, in search of a patient who appears to have vanished into thin air. Her crime: drowning her three children. Her mental defense: She’s living in the Berkshires, and everyone around her is either a neighbor or servant.

Of course, the marshals encounter everything you’d hope not to run into at a threatening insane asylum. Ominous doctors, polite yet wholly uncooperative (Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow, both oozing repressed evil), labyrinthine halls that house the most miserable offenders, and a bitch of a hurricane that forces the cops to stay. By the time the gradually confused Teddy has a change of clothes, he could be just about anyone from the facility.

Ben Kingsley, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo in Shutter Island

Scorsese plays with practically all the tools a filmmaker would employ for a film like this, from flashback snippets and surreal imagery to lighting extremes and pacing games (both in dialogue and scene transitions). It works. As Teddy’s descent develops, Scorsese has us feeling unsure and protective, in lockstep with our hero. Everyone, from the Nazi-like head of security (Ted Levine) to a clear-headed patient (Robin Bartlett), seems threatening. Sometimes it’s the acting. Other times, an uneasy edit.

Speaking of acting, there are few films of recent memory with a collection of performances as effective and notable. DiCaprio, probably a Scorsese mind-reader at this point, is a shuddering bundle of nerves, playing for pain with all the right notes. The aforementioned Kingsley, von Sydow and Levine create an impenetrable wall of calm killer instinct. And the fantastic Patricia Clarkson shows up as a confident voice of reason — you know, just to confuse matters even more.

When the dust clears on Shutter Island, the film leans not on horror, but on the human heart. Scorsese forces us to see an unpleasant world for an uncomfortable period of time, altering the film’s timing — and taking full advantage of Robert Richardson’s photography — to take us from dreams imagined to nightmares realized. It’s a point at which our expectations of horror movie language translate into something else, and it sticks. For a while.

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  2. […] skids into their city. This sci-fi thriller, starring the excellent character actor Robin Bartlett (Shutter Island, Inside Llewyn Davis) has played at Sundance and the Berlinale, and been recognized by Film […]


  1. Jonathan, 8 years ago Reply

    Sounds like an interesting movie. I’ll rent it eventually…

  2. Scott, 7 years ago Reply

    A great cast and well directed and executed. Some *REALLY* nice sets too, like Ward C.

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