Head-Trip Shutter Island Is The Good Kind Of Insane

Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, a florid art shocker that Paramount welcomed into the world with the strained enthusiasm of a mutant baby's parents, begins with U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leo DiCaprio) seasick, head in the toilet. The film is his prolonged purging, with Daniels coughing up chunks of his back story in flashback and dream. Now topside, he joins his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), and their destination looms into view: an ominous hunk of rock in Boston Harbor that houses Ashecliffe Asylum, where they've been assigned to find a missing inmate.

They're shown the grounds by progressive chief physician Dr. Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley), who manages to seem both a natty, patrician liberal circa 1954 and a bit of a satyr, with his Anton LaVey bald head/goatee combo and ironic twinkle—an ambiguous balance Kingsley keeps seesawing throughout. They also meet Cawley's colleague, Herr Doktor Naehring (Max von Sydow)—and Daniels, an ex-GI who witnessed the liberation of Dachau, takes an immediate dislike to the German.

As Daniels and Aule begin to investigate, there's a sense that their presence is an inside joke with the staff, that they're being given rehearsed misinformation. Daniels reveals that he'd heard sinister rumors about Ashecliffe long before this assignment, and not even a pretense of cooperation and normalcy can outlast their first hurricane-force dark-and-stormy-night on the island, when they trade their soaked civvies for orderly uniforms.

Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo DiCaprio tour Martin Scorsese’s madhouse.
Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo DiCaprio tour Martin Scorsese’s madhouse.

Details

Shutter Island Directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Laeta Kalogridis. Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow.

As the outline of a conspiracy comes into view, Daniels' digging brings on strobing headaches, hallucinations and a shrinking list of trustworthies that ultimately includes only his dead wife, dolorous Dolores, visiting him as a beyond-the-grave Technicolor prophet (Michelle Williams, not quite right for "ethereal"; it doesn't help that she's upstaged by Emily Mortimer's psychopath, who takes only one scene opposite DiCaprio to establish an immediate and spellbinding intimacy). As for DiCaprio, well, he'll never step onscreen and immediately suggest a liver-and-onions Greatest Generation Ralph Meeker he-man, but he has made suffering a specialty, and does so with an abandon that is frightening.

Production design maestro Dante Ferretti's island is a rugged symbolist mythscape, pocketed with hidden places: soothsayers' sea caves; Ward C; a squat Civil War-era fort where the most violent offenders are kept in a Goya madhouse; and, beyond it, the ultimate locked door—to the lighthouse! Scorsese' return to his Roger Corman AIP roots is an object lesson in the proximity of high and low culture—Shutter Island is lousy with modernist references, soundtracked by avant-garde 20th-century composers, pretentious in the best Pulp-y tradition.

One hundred thirty-eight minutes is dangerously epic for a talky thriller, but you forget the time, and even whether the plot makes sense, it doesn't matter. Since more attention has gone into filigreeing details into each scene than worrying about the way they'll fit together, the rattletrap engages you moment-to-moment, even as the overall pacing stops and lurches alarmingly.

Though the film takes place entirely out-to-sea, the mainland isn't left behind—it's concentrated here into a mid-century chamber of manmade horrors. Loonies praise their island as a safe haven from news "about atolls, about A-bombs."

Without revealing too much of an ending that everyone will soon insist on telling you their opinion of, Shutter Island, deep in its camp gothic trappings, seems to me a flea-pit occult history, with Daniels' headspace a confusion of "Hideous Secrets of the Nazi Horror Cult" schlock, hard-ass Mickey Spillane machismo, Cold War psychic confusion and the post-traumatic bad dreams of ex-servicemen.

 
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