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The Loony Bin Trip

by Shawn Stone on February 25, 2010

Shutter Island
Directed by Directed by Martin Scorsese

Say what, boss? (l-r) Ruffalo and DiCaprio in Shutter Island.

You might expect that a thril ler set in a 1950s mental asylum would make you think. Martin Scorsese’s tricky cinematic nightmare, based on a novel by Dennis Lahane (Mystic River), does not. What the film does very well, however, is make you feel—frightened, horrified, lost—just like its hero, U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio). With his new partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), they’re sent to forbidding Shutter Island off the Massachusetts coast, where a patient at a maximum security mental asylum for the criminally insane has escaped.

It’s a creepy place: Civil War-era gothic buildings are massive and depressing; overbearing safety protocols govern every action; and there is one locked door and barbed-wire enclosure after another. Scorsese resolutely takes Teddy’s point of view; the canny veteran cop is alert to geography, movement and any detail that seems “wrong,” and we’re right there with him. He also seems to be acting a little bit odd. We learn that this is because Teddy has had a significant tragedy in his life, an event that, as his time on the island is extended, begins to, literally, haunt him.

Scorsese keeps Teddy, and us, on edge. The place is run by a couple of smooth, shifty medical characters played by Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow, another detail that ratchets up the tension. The story turns dark and complex, and a mood of desperation kicks in.

Scorsese creates a counterpoint to all the mounting gloom by making Shutter Island gorgeous to look at. Every colorful frame is packed with beauty, and ravishing detail. It’s so beautiful, in fact, that you may not notice the facts that are plainly right in front of you. Because the plot of Shutter Island is frankly ridiculous. It’s nuttier than Daffy Duck skipping across a pond, shouting “woo-woo.” Since Scorsese takes this absurdity seriously, however, it’s still an oddly moving film.

The actors are marvelous, especially Kingsley’s courtly doc, Ruffalo’s loyal cop, and Jackie Earle Haley as a very disturbed patient. DiCaprio, who again demonstrates that his relationship to acting is akin to a sick man passing a kidney stone, is sympathetic.

You may praise Shutter Island for its formal qualities or curse it for its silliness, but you can’t dismiss it. It’s Scorsese’s most moving work in years.