Andy Bockelman: Batten down your mental hatches
March 10, 2010
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
Running time: 138 minutes
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley and Michelle Williams
With the strike of a match, the main character of "Shutter Island" takes a peek at something disturbing in pitch black. And through an American film legend's near effortless touch, we in the audience are attuned to his every move as he recoils.
And don't expect the goose bumps to go away soon after.
The year is 1954, and U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is beginning an investigation into a mental hospital. The Ashecliff Hospital for the Criminally Insane, specifically, where some of the most dangerous and disturbed people in the region have been relocated, separated from society on Shutter Island, a safe distance off the Massachusetts coast.
Teddy and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), are looking in to the disappearance of a patient (Emily Mortimer), but they've got their work cut out for them with the staff and patients remaining unusually tight-lipped. For Teddy, this isn't the worst problem, as he has been subject to nightmares about his experiences during the war and the recent death of his wife (Michelle Williams).
But it gets more complicated as the more he looks into Ashecliff the more suspicious he becomes about the institution's protocol and the treatment of its residents. And the more he learns, the less likely it is that he's leaving the island with his new knowledge.
DiCaprio's skills as a fiery character actor are put to good use as the agonized lawman, who seems to be the only sane one around during his search, all the while experiencing unexplained migraines and visions of his wife egging him to find her killer (Elias Koteas), whom Teddy believes to be locked up in Ashecliff.
All this draws the wary eye of Chuck, finely played by Ruffalo, who's unsure what to make of his partner's personal motivations. Neither are certain how to interpret Ashecliff's enigmatic head psychiatrist, Dr. Cawley, and this mysteriousness is embodied in a staunch showing by Ben Kingsley.
The entire cast is dead on, whether it's Mortimer as the missing patient, a sociopath who purposely drowned her three children; Williams as Teddy's wife, Dolores, who serves as an intangible oracle; or Jackie Earle Haley, Robin Bartlett and Patricia Clarkson as patients who cryptically warn Teddy of his fate to be stuck in Ashecliff.
The nuances of Dennis Lehane's chilling gothic novel are magnificently captured by director Martin Scorsese in nearly all facets, be they in the overbearing light and deafening sound that heighten Teddy's terror or in the simple architecture of the institution that gets creepier and creepier by the moment as it's waylaid by tempestuous weather.
Just as in Lehane's work, there is so much lurking in the darkness — and in the subconscious — the suspense is almost unparalleled as we work through this narrative. The attitude of Ashecliff patients and their preference in remaining institutionalized in a time of H-bombs and that new-fangled invention television also makes the audience think about who's really crazy in this world of ours.
However, Scorsese periodically overcomplicates things for the sake of building up the climax, which is admittedly no less unnerving than its literary origins. There's a tad too much psychological clutter in this thriller, which, like the recent "The Lovely Bones," relies on vivid imagery more than it has to in order to be successful. Unlike Peter Jackson's misfire, though, the payoff is much more worthwhile here, partly thanks to screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis, who follows Lehane's book faithfully and effectively.
"Shutter Island" is hardly Scorsese's best, but it's far from his worst. As the fourth consecutive feature teaming the director and star, one would hope their next project, starring DiCaprio as another Teddy — Roosevelt — will be as stirring.
Of course, the Rough Rider biopic won't depend on an undertone of psychosis, but still …