Requiem for a nuthouse

DiCaprio and Scorsese ace this beautifully wrought psychodrama

Feb 24, 2010 at 12:00 am

Both a student and master of cinema, Martin Scorsese's latest, Shutter Island, couldn't serve as a better example of the two sides of the director's persona. On the one hand, this genre exercise is further evidence that the celebrated director has committed himself to formalism. The film is a movie buff's treasure trove, referencing everything from Hitchcock's Spellbound to the silent German classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to such B-movie thrillers as Shock Corridor and Memento. On the other hand, Scorsese's thematic obsessions still loom large, namely, whether self-dramatization can lead to self-actualization. From Taxi Driver to King of Comedy to Goodfellas, Scorsese has repeatedly examined the American ideal of personal reinvention — and predicted dire consequences. Unlike those films, however, Shutter Island is an unapologetic pastiche of pulpy noir and gothic psychodrama first, weighty considerations second.

Haunted by the death of his wife (Michelle Williams), U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) takes a case on isolated Shutter Island, home to the Ashecliffe hospital for the criminally insane. Teamed with his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), he's in pursuit of an escaped psychopath (Emily Mortimer), but clues suggest the asylum's top docs (Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow) may be hiding dark secrets. Suddenly, Teddy begins to suffer from debilitating migraines and disturbing hallucinations. The visions are connected to the atrocities he witnessed during World War II (the film takes place in 1954), when his platoon liberated the Nazi work camp Dachau. Images of slain children and conversations with his dead wife induce fevered paranoia. Worse, a hurricane strikes, sealing off the island from the outside world. Soon, Teddy is uncovering an elaborate conspiracy that involves HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee), ex-Nazis, psychotropic drugs and sinister psychological experiments.

From start to finish, Shutter Island is a Hollywood product, boasting impeccable craft, scenery-chewing performances, cheap thrills and a sly understated wit. The tone is set in its first moments; the melodramatic score swells and blares with mystery and import. Slowly — almost too slowly — Scorsese immerses you in the island's period trappings and creepy locales, creating a claustrophobic labyrinth for the looming mind games. There are long Hitchcockian tracking shots, detectives in fedoras, a King Lear-sized storm and ghostly inmates with mysterious wounds. For those paying attention, the sinister supporting cast is filled with a rogue's gallery of unnerving actors. John Carroll Lynch (Zodiac), Ted Levine (Silence of the Lambs), Emily Mortimer, Elias Koteas, Patricia Clarkson and, especially, Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen, Little Children) revel in their unstable characters.

The main cast is top-notch as well. DiCaprio sweats and frets with gusto, proving that he's still one of Hollywood's most empathetic actors. Ruffalo handles his noir-speak capably as Teddy's new partner, and Michelle Williams is unexpectedly moving as his dead wife. But it's Kingsley who owns every scene he's in, masterfully keeping us unsure of his motives.

But while every scene in Shutter Island is packed to the gills with visual style and cinematic filigree, the arc of the narrative doesn't quite gel. In particular, Scorsese stumbles with his artfully composed but far-too-protracted dream and flashback sequences. With a running time much longer than two hours, Teddy's forays into questionably necessary visions of the Holocaust and conversations with his dead wife start to feel redundant. More so, the thriller's third act shifts in tone and lacks the punch of revelation it should. The outcome is masterfully handled but ultimately anticlimactic, with only the final moment's twist giving the film resonance.

For some, Scorsese's command of the medium is enough to herald the picture a masterpiece. To others, Shutter Island is a minor but showy effort from a director who should be tackling meatier subjects. The truth is, "America's Greatest Director" (as he's called) has always been a stylist, attracted to viscerally kinetic and character-dependent dramas. While his knowledge and appreciation of film is deep and vast, his sensibilities have always been populist. Shutter Island demonstrates the many strengths, fetishes and, yes, even weaknesses he's had throughout his career. And none of it will make a lick of difference at the box office — which should be big.