Shutter Island (Paramount Pictures, R)

Don’t dwell on every little point but go with the grand sweep of things and you’ll discover that it’s more than worth the journey.

 

 

It’s been four years since American screens have been graced by a major Martin Scorsese feature film, but Shutter Island is definitely worth the wait. Scorsese is clearly having fun in this one: it’s part police procedural, part gothic thriller, part sociological drama and a overall a great big mindfuck from a director who knows how to get into your head.

It’s 1954 and U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) have been dispatched to locate a patient escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane. The hospital is located on Shutter Island, a forbiddingly craggy outcropping reachable only by ferry from Boston. Almost as soon as Daniels and Aule arrive they are met with resistance from the staff: they have to give up their weapons, they can’t get access to records, and above all they can’t go unescorted into Block A where the worst of the worst prisoners are housed. The story about the escaped patient, Rachel Solando (played by both Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson—it’s that kind of movie) makes no sense so clearly there’s something more sinister going on.

You couldn’t pick a better location for a gothic thriller than Shutter Island: once you’re there you’re at the mercy of the people in charge and if you don’t accept their version of reality your options are very few indeed. The mental facility is also a classically creepy edifice of brick exteriors and labyrinthine interiors, and the lighthouse is even better. And wouldn’t you know it, on the day Daniels and Aule arrive there’s a hurricane and not only is all communication with the mainland shut off but the power goes out, opening all the electric locks and nullifying the usefulness of the electric fence which surrounds the place.

Shutter Island is ruled by Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kinsgley, in his sinister mode recalling the psychopath Don Logan he played in Sexy Beast) with the assistance of Dr. Jeremiah Naering (Max von Sydow, introduced in a classic reveal shot) who is unapologetic about being a German émigré. That sets Daniels’ radar on high alert because as an American G.I. he participated in the liberation of Dachau and also did something in that camp he’s not proud of today. Daniels has regular flashbacks to his war service and also to his life with his wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) who was tragically killed in a fire.

Shutter Island works in large part because of the atmosphere created through Robert Richardson’s cinematography and the soundtrack selected from pre-recorded music by Robbie Robertson. I’m not totally sold on DiCaprio’s ability as an actor: he’s good as a smart-aleck cop but much less convincing when he tries to plumb the depths of emotion. But Scorsese’s direction makes the most of his abilities and DiCaprio is surrounded by an expert cast: besides those already named, Jackie Earle Haley has a great turn as one of the mental patients and Ted Levine (Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs) is effective as the hospital’s warden.

I can see how people who expect films to fit into one of the traditional genres could get upset with this one, so here’s my advice: think of it as an opera. Scorsese clearly has no intention to be subtle and lays on the emotional overload from the first scene. Don’t dwell on every little point but go with the grand sweep of things and you’ll discover that it’s more than worth the journey. | Sarah Boslaugh

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