Shutter Island (9/10)

Every last thing in “Shutter Island” is conducive to the stifling atmosphere of fear, a tour-de-force mystery that tightens around your neck like a noose at the beginning of the film and drags you, unknowingly, into the creepy black corners of the room, where secrets live and gnaw at the edges of your vision, ducking into shadows before you can spot them. It weaves a fascinating and absorbing tale about corruption, the psychological effect of war, and the horrors of the mind, real or imagined, that haunt the dark places in our hearts.

One such dark place is Shutter Island, home to the mental hospital Ash Hill, an institution for the criminally insane. Within its somber electrified walls walk the “most damaged and deranged” patients in the world, guarded by orderlies, psychiatrists, and armed guards. The instant we see the island looming in the distance, its jagged walls plummeting to the choppy dark waters below, scraggly forests pock-marking its surface like fungus, a sense of fear permeates it, a feeling of terrible acts lurking in its depths.

Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), a US Marshal called to the island with his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a patient, Rachel Solando, senses it too, and it doesn’t ease his mind any when he’s required to surrender his gun as soon as he walks through the front gate. And we feel the chills skittering up and down his spine as a gaunt and haggard old crone watches him walk up the path, silently placing one knobby finger in front of pursed cracked lips. The message is clear: secrets reside within.

From the second Teddy sets foot on Shutter Island, Martin Scorcese cultivates foreboding and a growing sense of eerie unease in the viewer, with a unique visual flair composed of flashbacks, chilling dream sequences, and outright hallucinations. Their placement in the film freezes the bones, stops the heart, and arrests the senses, grabbing you with such vicious abandon and other-worldly color and style that you can’t look away. One early sequence shows visions of Teddy haunted by his dead wife, crumbling into chunks of ash in his arms as out-sized flakes of the stuff cascade all around him as his house burns to the ground. Teddy keeps his arms around nothing, silently weeping into the dust and the grime.

Such scenes would have bordered on the laughably ridiculous, were it not for Scorcese’s exquisite attention to tone and detail and a slew of riveting performances from a top notch cast. Leonardo DiCaprio continues his unbroken string of excellence with the character of Teddy, giving him an instantly relatable paranoia and fear, palpable in its intensity yet with an uncanny subtlety. He channels Teddy’s haunted past and spirit perfectly. Mark Ruffalo as his partner plays second banana to Teddy, but still manages to bring a startling life to him. Ben Kingsley plays Dr. Cawley, the head psychiatrist of Ash Hill, and his performance is brilliantly hard-to-read, a man seemingly only interested in the welfare of his patients, not prisoners, but whose placid demeanor and soothing manner of speaking are more infuriating than comforting. In smaller parts, Max von Sydow brings gleeful maybe-menace to another psychiatrist, and Jackie Earle Haley camps it up frighteningly well as a patient in Ward C, where the most dangerous criminals on the island reside.

You’ll never be quite at ease as you watch “Shutter Island”. You’ll feel the need to look over your shoulder, or rewind just a couple of seconds to see if you saw that right, if you heard this that way, if that really happened right there. These wouldn’t be much more than cheap tricks if it weren’t for the perfect attention to detail and tone that I mentioned earlier, a tone that may or may not guard some secrets. And like any good secrets, even when all is said and done there are still stones left unturned, rooms to explore, and paths of the night to follow.


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