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Friday, Feb. 19, 2010

Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese’s Chilling Thriller

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The island rises like a prehistoric behemoth from the fog of Boston harbor, a rocky Alcatraz set in cold, swirling tides and accessible only by a choppy ferry ride. Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is confined to that rock, a steeply pitched, wooded wilderness occupied by a fortress-like federal asylum for the criminally insane and the mysterious lighthouse the facility’s patients fear.

U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) arrive on the island to investigate the strange disappearance of one of its inmates. Seems that a woman convicted of murdering her three children simply vanished inside her cell, a room with barred windows and a door locked from outside. The foot dragging asylum staff is headed by Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and backed up by a force of heavily armed guards. “You act like insanity is contagious,” Daniels quips, film noir style. The guard only smirks.

Shutter Island is an ambitious adaptation of the novel by Dennis Lehane, the author of Mystic River. Set in 1954, Shutter Island owes something to the Hollywood detective and mental illness dramas of that period. The asylum is clearly a snake pit—at least the restricted wing that reverberates with the screams of madness. Although Daniels and Aule are wisecracking cops in fedora hats and loud ties, something’s a bit off. Aule seems entirely too glib and Daniels is a damaged man. He feels responsible for the death of his wife, who communicates unsettling warnings about the island in his dreams. And the asylum with its gothic gate and electric fence reminds him of the Nazi death camp he liberated at the end of the war.

Nothing is as it seems in Shutter Island; every puzzle reveals a new twist. At the center of the labyrinth looms the ambiguous figure of Dr. Cawley; a suave performance by Kingsley endows the tweed-suited mandarin with erudition, a vaguely cosmopolitan accent and a profession of humanitarian concern. He claims to be against lobotomizing and drugging the inmates—perhaps he’s an old school Freudian committed to talking his patients through their trauma. But maybe he has allowed himself to become the master of a trauma in a hallucinogenic land of nightmare?

Shutter Island is an intriguing mystery whose solutions are slippery at best. It rambles on for 20 minutes too long, as if no one in the production could summon the courage to tell Scorsese: “enough already!” The screenplay is less than pitch perfect in terms of its historical setting, but minor flaws don’t entirely diminish the overarching concept of the shadowy asylum island and some brilliant cinematic moments, especially the dreams that haunt Daniels’ sleep and follow him into his waking hours.

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