Martin Scorsese’s overheated new thriller “Shutter Island” takes places at a loony bin on an island in the Boston Harbor, circa 1954.
Calling it a loony bin might sound insensitive, until you see how Scorsese photographs the proceedings at this hospital for the criminally insane.
The patients snarl and twitch and screech. Water drips menacingly from the ceilings of the dimly lit prison cells. The orderlies wander around the grounds carrying long needles with which misbehaving nut jobs might be lobotomized.
In short, “Shutter Island” is a leering horror movie with a frisson of old-school Hollywood sophistication. As Stanley Kubrick once reinvented the haunted house story in “The Shining,” Scorsese now tries to raise similarly tawdry B-movie pulp material to new heights.
The experiment only half works. The film, thankfully, dispenses with the grandiose self-importance that weighed down Scorsese’s “The Aviator” and “Gangs of New York” – it’s a freewheeling, unpretentious freak-out. But for all its loopy and entertaining flourishes, there’s no getting around the fact that, at its core, “Shutter Island” is plainly ridiculous.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo play Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule, a pair of federal marshals who have been dispatched to Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of a patient named Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), notorious for having drowned her three children.
Once on the island, however, they find themselves being stonewalled by the two psychiatrists who run the facility, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow). The doctors refuse to hand over important files and seem to have instructed all the patients to tell the marshals the exact same lies.
Might some sort of massive cover-up be afoot? Is that solitary lighthouse on the coast really being used for Nazi-style human experiments?
Before it’s all over, there will be hallucinations and flashbacks, a conversation with a strange woman in a cave (Patricia Clarkson) and a devastating hurricane that allows all of the patients to escape from their cells.
Working from a novel by Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River”), Scorsese displays an over-the-top abandon that we haven’t seen from him since 1991’s “Cape Fear.”
The problem is that a little bit of time spent inside of this exceedingly claustrophobic universe starts to go a very long way.
Scorsese, who hasn’t released a feature shorter than two hours since 1986’s “The Color of Money,” allows “Shutter Island” to carry on for 138 minutes – a criminal length for a B movie.
The storytelling starts to stall and sputter. Our connection to DiCaprio’s character, whose behavior turns increasingly wack-a-doodle, begins to fade.
Is the entire island haunted? Is all of this going on inside Teddy’s mind? Do we even care?
By the time the film serves up its big, “Sixth Sense”-style revelation, there’s no emotion left for the audience to cling to. “Shutter Island” ends up coming across as a dumb stunt.
As stunts go, though, you could do a lot worse. DiCaprio handles an extremely tricky role with grace, charting the breakdown of his character without ever telegraphing to us what’s really going on.
Ruffalo is perfectly cast, using his warm eyes and soft features to make us trust him even as all available evidence suggests he might have ulterior motives.
Between Kingsley and von Sydow – not to mention Jackie Earle Haley as an especially daffy inmate, and Ted Levine (“The Silence of the Lambs”) as the no-nonsense prison warden – the supporting cast is a rogue’s gallery of deluxe ham.
And this being a Scorsese picture, when all else fails, you get to luxuriate in dazzling technique. Note the scenes featuring Michelle Williams, as Teddy’s deceased wife, who reappears in burning hot color to warn her husband of the disaster about to befall him.
Or consider the dazzling open sequence, set on the ferry to Shutter Island, and filmed in a deliberately artificial style, the ocean rear-projected behind Ruffalo and DiCaprio – a sly homage to ’40s noirs like “Key Largo.”
At 67, Scorsese still makes movies that are drunk on other movies, with an energy and wit that puts filmmakers a third his age to shame.
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