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Isle of Man(ic)

March 10, 2010
Shutter Island

Mark Ruffalo (L) and Leonardo DiCaprio play U.S. marshalls investigating the disappearance of a female patient from a hospital for the criminally insane in Martin Scorsese's new film, Shutter Island.

Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is no match for Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, but then again, Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island is no match for Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River either. An addictive little potboiler, Shutter Island is 369 pages of twists, cliffhangers and MacGuffins. Unlike Mystic River, there’s not an authentic human moment in it.

In adapting Shutter Island for the screen, Scorsese recognizes that fact, and makes the best of it. The opening scene clues us in to his intentions. As domineering drums and hyperactive horns pound away on the soundtrack, we watch U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) make hard-boiled small talk on the deck of a ferry headed to Shutter Island, home of Ashcliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Director of photography Robert Richardson (The Aviator, Inglourious Basterds) uses a telephoto lens to flatten the scene’s depth, making the sea in the background seem as close as the actors in the foreground. It’s eerie, unreal and appropriate—Shutter Island has lots of shallow spooks but little depth.

It’s 1954, and the fedora-wearing pair has been sent to the island, in the Boston Harbor, to investigate the disappearance of a female patient from her secure cell. Their handlers, primarily Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), are helpful, but not too helpful. Detective Daniels and his partner must sacrifice their firearms. Patient and doctor files are confidential. Most off-limits of all is Ward C, a former Civil War fortress-turned-maximum security psych ward, looming above the hospital grounds like the Bates Motel on HGH.

Frustrated with the staff’s lack of cooperation, Daniels threatens to end the investigation and go back on the next morning’s ferry. But he has reasons of his own for staying on the island. Rumor has it that Andrew Laeddis, the arsonist who killed his wife, is imprisoned in Ward C. No matter. A hurricane prevents Daniels and Aule from leaving the island anyway.

The premise is as stale as a week-old donut (and less nutritious), but Scorsese unleashes every weapon in his cinematic arsenal to keep the audience on edge. It mostly works. In addition to Robbie Robertson’s sonic sledgehammer of a soundtrack, there are slo-mo shots of creepy-looking prisoners, rats flooding out of rocks, and labyrinthine hospital passageways. During the hurricane sequence, one half-expects a kitchen sink to fly by.

Scorsese’s heavy-handed approach complements Laeta Kalogridis’s faithful adaptation of the source novel—up to a point. The book’s mind-screwing conclusion was genuinely unsettling. But by the time the film gets to the big reveal, Scorsese has beaten the audience into such submission that you’re more likely to snicker than be spooked.

Providing a memorable respite from the film’s many shocks and twists are Teddy’s dream sequences and flashbacks. Beautifully art directed by Dante Ferretti, they form a series of surreal mini-masterpieces. Of particular note are Teddy’s memories of his involvement in the liberation of Dachau. But don’t let the restaging of a concentration camp fool you. The film’s references to Nazis, the Korean War and HUAC are there simply to suggest conspirational mishigas, not to make any larger political point.

It’s a bit lost in the film (due mainly to the removal of the novel’s 1993-set prologue), but Shutter Island’s real critical target is the psychiatric profession, and its overreliance on pharmaceuticals to treat severe mental illness. The story’s mid-century setting marks a time when treatment was transitioning from the use of invasive brain surgery to the use of antipsychotic drugs. In the eyes of Dr. Cawley, a cognitive behavioral therapist if there ever was one, his profession is simply trading one form of barbarism for another.

In the novel, Lehane describes Daniels’ face as “lined with the evidence of the war and the years since,” which is utterly at odds with DiCaprio’s eternally boyish looks. But DiCaprio for once has found a film whose tone fits his overwrought acting. Ruffalo, meanwhile, gets even less to do in the film than his character had to do in the novel (which wasn’t much), while Kingsley, Max von Syndow and John Carroll Lynch play their heavies with professional aplomb. Also of note are Michelle Williams as Daniels’ tragic ex-wife and Jackie Earl Haley, who continues to find something new in each creep he’s asked to play.

Shutter Island is one of those films where the title couldn’t be more appropriate. Yes, it will make you shudder. But more importantly, this film’s world is an island, isolated from any connection to genuine human behavior or society. Once you leave it, you’ll hardly remember you were there.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Adam permalink
    March 10, 2010 4:53 pm

    Nice. Still haven’t seen it, but would like to. I’ve heard mixed reviews, and yours seems to be the norm.

  2. January 17, 2014 9:07 am

    Everything is very open with a really clear clarification of the challenges.
    It was definitely informative. Your website is extremely
    helpful. Thank you for sharing!

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