by Mel Valentin
In the opening shot of Martin Scorsese’s ("The Departed," "The Aviator," "Gangs of New York," "Casino," "Goodfellas," "Cape Fear," "Taxi Driver," "]Mean Streets") adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s ("Gone Baby Gone," "Mystic River") 2003 bestselling novel,"Shutter Island" (delayed from October to February), a psychological-suspense thriller set in 1954, a ferry headed for an island off the coast of Boston emerges from the fog. Shutter Island houses a hospital for the criminally insane. The ferry carries two U.S. Marshals tasked with investigating the seemingly impossible disappearance of a patient her locked cell. Over the next two or three days, the two marshals will encounter a hospital administrator with an unorthodox approach to treating his patients, a category 5 hurricane, and a conspiracy that embodies post-WWWII trauma and Cold War paranoia/hysteria.Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio [his fourth collaboration with Scorsese]), a U.S. Marshall, WWII veteran, and widower, and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), a recent transplant from Seattle, are working together for the first time. Teddy doesn’t take to water, becoming physically ill on the ferry, but recovers before they arrive at their destination, Shutter Island and Ashecliffe Hospital, a mental institution for the criminally insane run by Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley). Dr. Cawley fills in Daniels and Aule on the disappearance of Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), a woman convicted of drowning her three children. According to Dr. Cawley, Rachel simply disappeared from her locked room, “as if she evaporated through the walls.” A search of the hospital grounds and the island turned up nothing.
"An early contender for year-end honors."
With a hurricane approaching, Daniels and Aule are cut off from the mainland, forced to continue the investigation with limited resources and the hospital staff’s intransigence. Daniels, however, has another goal: to find Andrew Laeddis (Elias Koteas), the arsonist charged with starting the fire that took the life of Daniels’ wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), two years earlier. Daniels suspects Laeddis is being held somewhere on the island. Daniels mental state, fragile from the loss of his wife, and the liberation of the Dachau death camp from the Germans, becomes increasingly unstable as new clues surface indicating that Dr. Cawley, along with Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), a German expatriate, may be conducting illegal, unethical medical experiments (e.g., brain surgery, hallucinogenic drugs) on the patients.
Shutter Island doesn’t fit comfortably into a single genre (that’s a strength, not a weakness). It’s a police procedural/film noir, a suspense-thriller, and a psychological horror film, sometimes simultaneously. As adapted by Laeta Kalogridis (Pathfinder, Alexander, Night Watch) from Lehane’s novel, Shutter Island hinges on whether Daniels’ mental state hides a larger truth he refuses to acknowledge about his past or, in fact, reveals a deeper truth about Dr. Cawley and Ashecliffe Hospital. Ashecliffe Hospital, with its foreboding, labyrinthine central building, three wards (one for men, one for women, and a third for the most violent patients), and Shutter Island, a cemetery, a lighthouse, and rocky, barren grounds, represent both a physical location (where the central mystery of Rachel’s disappearance unfolds) and just (if not more) as importantly, an external representation of Daniels’ disturbed, paranoid mind.
Daniels’ twice rejects being described as a “man of violence, ” but that’s exactly what he is. His work as a U.S. Marshal presumably involves physical force, as did his military service in WWII, including the liberation of Dachau, a traumatic experience that continues to haunt Daniels. Seeing genocide first hand and, later, the loss of his life, left him a wounded man, prone to delusions (maybe) and paranoia (definitely). Lehane purposely chose the mid-1950s, a time when anti-Communist hysteria, witch-hunts, and blacklists (based on hearsay), when, for a short period, the most powerful man in the United States wasn’t the president, but a Republican senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. The choices were stark: you were either a patriotic American and, therefore, anti-Communist or objectively pro-Communist.
Scorsese, cinematographer Robert Richardson (The Aviator), production designer Dante Ferretti (Sweeney Todd, The Aviator, Cold Mountain, Gangs of New York), and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker externalize Daniels’ increasingly feverish state into a series of tableaux of angst- and guilt-ridden nightmares, each worse than the last. Oblique camera angles, lighting (often sharply casting a spotlight on Daniels), vertiginous crane shots, an ever-present, mobile camera, sound design, and contemporary, (mostly) atonal compositions selected by Robbie Robertson (of The Band fame), are used to bring moviegoers into Daniel’s his inner life, a surreal swirl of dreams, memories, fictions, and possibly, untruths."Shutter Island" offers few surprises for mystery-savvy moviegoers. They’ll correctly guess the solution to the central conundrum early on. As a psychological thriller (where the real mystery lies in the central character, his motivation, and his past), however, "Shutter Island" really works. The line that closes "Shutter Island," “Better to die a good man than to live as a monster,” connects "Shutter Island’s" disparate threads and themes, but also adds ambiguity and poignancy that will leave moviegoers both thinking and moved simultaneously as the mash-up between the late Dinah Washington (“This Bitter Earth”) and contemporary composer Max Richter (“On the Nature of Daylight”), plays over the end credits.
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originally posted: 02/19/10 06:48:45