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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Film Review | Shutter Island

Two flew over the cuckoo’s nest

by Thomas Delapa

“It was a dark and stormy night...”

Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s opening line is so infamously portentous, even Snoopy dug spoofing it.

But dog-eared clichés obviously didn’t stand in the way of Martin Scorsese in his direction of Shutter Island, a waterlogged psychological thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Be afraid, be very afraid. Just remember, it’s only a movie. And yeah, DiCaprio sees dead people.

Collaborating with his Aviator star for the fourth time, Scorsese battens down the hatches for a blustery and tempest-tossed B-movie overblown into 138-minute, A-movie scale. Up the coast from Cape Fear and a few miles from where he left us in The Departed, Scorsese and crew sail to the lunatic fringe of Boston harbor, where a maximum-security asylum ominously sits like Alcatraz for the criminally crazy. Fantasy Island it’s not.

Landing into the doom and gloom is DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels, a hard-nosed 1950s federal marshal, and his dutiful new partner (Mark Ruffalo). They’ve been assigned to the case of a missing axe murderer, who one night vanished from her cell “as if she evaporated.”

Cue the furious wind, sound the lightning, and bring on the blaring fog-horns. As soon as the pair set foot on the grounds of Ashcliffe Hospital, the night gets darker and the storms get stormier. Production designer Dante Ferretti pours it on, flaunting (and floating) every sort of Gothic convention and summoning up the ghosts of monster-horror-chiller movie past.

There’s no escape from Shutter Island, little buddy, nor from its mad grab bag of WWII-era historical buoys, including, but not limited to, Cold War government conspiracies, concentration-camp atrocities, Nazi lobotomies, brainwashed spooks and old-fashioned American mass murderers. It’s also drenched with arch film homages, from 1940s “B” film master Val Lewton to Sam Fuller’s 1963 loony-bin thriller Shock Corridor, and zigzagging all the back to 1920s German expressionism.

Call me crazy, but Scorsese’s script (from a book by Dennis Lehane) is so overstuffed and campy fantastic, it would send Freud himself back to the couch. It’s gimmicky, too, since it’s one of those thrillers that cheats by making unknowable—in retrospect—what’s real and what isn’t. Once on the island, Daniels is haunted by ghoulish visions of his dead wife (Michelle Williams)—as well as his horrific memories of liberating a German death camp. From the outset, he butts head with the hospital’s placid director (Ben Kingsley), who just has to be hiding something. If Kingsley isn’t suspicious enough, lurking in the shadows is a German doctor (Max Von Sydow) with a fondness for Mahler.

In these choppy but shallow waters, Scorsese tosses in a school of red herrings, each more lurid than the one before. Whatever 1950s social comment the film seems to be making, it’s yanked out of the picture by an undertow of gruesome sensationalism.

Over the course of Scorsese’s long, much-honored but schizoid career, he’s listed wildly between artful, deeply felt movies like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and pulpy commercial rust buckets like Cape Fear and The Departed. Despite (or because of) a crazy plot twist, you can find Shutter Island in the latter. In the final analysis, it’s all wet.


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