‘Shutter Island’: Shattering

February 15, 2010

I once had the chance to introduce Martin Scorsese at a New York Film Critics Circle award dinner (he was presenting an award) – and took the opportunity to say out loud that I felt fortunate that my career as a film critic coincided with Martin Scorsese’s career as a filmmaker.


That sentiment still holds. Every film he makes is more than just food for thought – it’s a full banquet. Scorsese is one of only a handful of directors working whose passion for the medium bleeds through in every frame. He forces the critic to bring out his A game – to watch and analyze the film with the same energy and imagination as the filmmaker brought to making it. And that’s absolutely true of “Shutter Island,” his latest film.


Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, “Shutter Island” continues the collaboration between Scorsese and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who has become the kind of muse to the second half of Scorsese’s career that Robert De Niro was for the first half.


DiCaprio isn’t just a star – he’s a smart, resourceful actor intimately in tune with his emotions and capable of nearly anything on screen. In “Shutter Island,” he plays a man convinced that there’s a plot to drive him crazy – and fearful that it may be working.


The references and hommages in the film are multiple, everything from “Out of the Past” to “Shock Corridor” and “The Snake Pit” to Hitchcock’s “Spellbound.” There are more – and yet this is absolutely Scorsese’s film from start to finish, beginning and ending with blasts of cello and bass that resemble the stentorian tones of a foghorn. It’s as if the score is warning, Careful – it’s easy to get lost in this murky labyrinth of the mind.


DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. marshal who, with partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), has been sent to Ashecliffe, a mental asylum for the criminally insane located on a forbidding island off the coast of Massachusetts. They’ve been summoned because one of the inmates (“patients,” the persnickety head doctor keeps saying, correcting references to them as prisoners) seems to have escaped.


That head shrink is the punctilious Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley, looking like a bow-tie-wearing goblin), who seems oddly distanced from the situation at hand. Yes, he’s concerned that the patient, Rachel Solando, a woman who drowned her three children, seems to have vanished. But he doesn’t seem to think she can get very far, given the daunting cliffs that ring the island.


Yet he’s summoned the U.S. marshals to the island, once a Civil War-era fortress. Teddy, however, is suspicious of the assignment. As he explains to Chuck, who is his new partner, he believes there’s something larger at work here.


In fact, Teddy is convinced that there’s bad mojo afoot: government-funded experiments in brainwashing and mind-programming, involving drugs that control and alter the behavior of patients, who are turned into mindless killing machines at the bidding of the CIA.


Teddy says he learned this from a killer he imprisoned, who had been an inmate at Ashcliffe – and who doesn’t want to go back to the asylum. Worse, Teddy believes the government is aware that he’s on to this clandestine program of consciousness control – and that he’s been purposely assigned to the Solando case for sketchy reasons. Eventually, it’s explained to him: He’ll be declared insane, at which point no one will believe anything he says.


It seems like the perfect mousetrap: Lure the guy who knows too much to an asylum, call him crazy, then dismiss everything he subsequently says. Teddy doesn’t even connect those dots himself – it takes one of the Rachel Solandos (he encounters two different ones, played by Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson) to implant that idea. He knew he was in danger – but until that moment, played out over a fire in a cliffside cave, he didn’t realize how much.


Nor does the audience understand just how deep they’ve wandered into scary, haunting Scorsese territory until it’s too late. Scorsese walks us in, closes and locks the door behind us – and then turns out the lights.


But he doesn’t leave us in the dark. Rather, Scorsese punctuates the story (from the screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis) with visual flourishes that alternately startle and illuminate what is really happening. Even as he examines the way this environment impinges on Teddy Daniels’ sanity, he also offers hints at just how vulnerable Teddy may be to this kind of manipulation.


He is, after all, still in mourning for a wife (Michelle Williams) who died in an apartment fire a few years earlier – and when he arrives at the institution, he finds clues indicating that her killer may be somewhere on the island. But the officials claim never to have heard of the man.


Teddy is also prone to killer migraines, which seem to trigger dreams and memories that swirl together. They involve his dead wife, as well as his experiences as one of the troops that liberated Dachau during World War II.


It’s all played out against frightening storms that border on hurricanes, an upheaval of nature that seems to mirror the turmoil in Teddy’s head. And Scorsese finds plenty of visuals within the forbidding asylum environment to cause foreboding – both in Teddy and in the viewer who sees the film from his point of view.


At 35, DiCaprio has been acting for 20 years and has been a star for most of that time. His work just gets deeper and more layered, without revealing the effort that goes into it. And make no mistake – this is a tough, demanding role, requiring a vulnerability that must have made even DiCaprio feel the pinch.


He makes Teddy Daniels a truly tortured hero: a man with an agenda even he doesn’t quite comprehend, convinced of his own rightness but unsure whether he is up to what is required to finish this job. It’s an Oscar-caliber performance in a film that, hopefully, won’t be forgotten before the end of 2010.


DiCaprio is surrounded by a cast that gives as good as it gets, from Ruffalo as the partner who isn’t quite sure what he’s gotten into; to Kingsley, at once sympathetic and imperious as the head shrink; to Max von Sydow, as another doctor who may have a Nazi past; to Mortimer and Clarkson as the two Rachel Solandos – each with a story convincing enough to confuse Teddy and slow him down.


“Shutter Island” is like a lunatic’s trip to Wonderland, where no one and nothing is what it appears to be. It builds suspense with only brief respites, reaching a climax that is truly shattering.


This is one man’s journey into madness – and Martin Scorsese is your most welcome tour guide. Hang on tight.


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