“Shutter Island” is a dark, creepy examination of madness living next to and indistinguishable from sanity, disguised as a dark, creepy thriller.
Director Martin Scorsese (“The Departed“) has a blast tying you in knots with suspense while slipping you a message about the people you see every day, including you. This is how the movie is most Hitchcockian.
U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), working for the first time with partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo, “Where the Wild Things Are“), has requested and received an assignment investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando, a woman who has vanished from her cell in a prison/asylum for the criminally insane.
The prison is located in a Civil War-era fort on Shutter Island, off the coast of Boston. When the marshals arrive by ferry, they are told by Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley, “The Wackness“) that Rachel seems to have evaporated through the walls of her cell.
The investigation leads the men through a maze of interviews with staff and patients, duplicated visually by the labyrinthine structure of the hospital and wildness of the terrain. Cawley’s associate is a German immigrant, Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow, “Rush Hour 3“). Since this takes place in 1954, and because Ted took part in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, it’s easy for him to believe the worst of what he’s told about the Germans.
When Ted meets the prodigal Rachel (Emily Mortimer, “Redbelt“), returned to her cell, he’s already well on his way to doubting everything anyone tells him. When he later stumbles across another woman claiming to be Rachel (Patricia Clarkson, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona“), who warns him not to eat or drink anything prepared for him, or smoke anyone else’s cigarette, his worst suspicions are confirmed.
In the best tradition of movies that include the words “criminally insane” in their plot synopses, this one is packed with dark corridors, ominous music, dark and stormy nights, visits to the cemetery, and a production design by Dante Ferretti (“Sweeney Todd“).
The supporting cast is terrific, especially Michelle Williams (“Synecdoche New York“) as Ted’s late wife, Dolores; Jackie Earle Haley (“Watchmen“) as a battered inmate; Ted Levine (“American Gangster“) and John Carroll Lynch (“Gran Torino“) as the wardens; and Elias Koteas (“The Fourth Kind“) as Laeddis, a pyromaniac who is either the key to the mystery or the lock. The script is by Laeta Kalogridis (“Pathfinder“) and is based on the novel by Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone“).
DiCaprio keeps on getting better. He says that he most enjoys playing characters who have more to them than is immediately apparent, and no wonder. From Jack Dawson in “Titanic,” whose freewheeling toughness hid a deep romanticism, to Frank Wheeler in “Revolutionary Road,” whose patina of confidence covered an unexpected vacuity, DiCaprio has grown in stature as an actor as he’s aged into darker roles. Maybe some of that can be attributed to working with Scorsese. This is their fourth collaboration after “Gangs of New York,” “The Aviator,” and “The Departed.” Wouldn’t be surprising; even Scorsese’s comedies are dark.
DiCaprio’s major scene with Mortimer is the film’s most gripping. She is a widow imprisoned for drowning her three children in the lake behind her house, then seating them at the dinner table for a meal. Upon meeting Teddy, she thinks he’s her husband and clings to him for emotional support. Ted, whose wife was killed in an apartment fire, has to fight to stay out of Rachel’s fantasy. It’s killing that an actress as riveting as Mortimer has to appear in junk like “The Pink Panther” remakes.
The great original of all asylum movies is the silent German classic of 1920, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” This is the production that introduced Expressionism to world cinemagoers, with its distorted sets, eccentric lighting and heightened acting style. The lighting made its way through the early horror films to film noir in the 1940s.
Scorsese borrows from this style heavily in “Shutter Island,” and the result is the first truly memorable film of 2010. See it. —Doug Bentin