LOS ANGELES TIMES By Betsy Sharkey
February 19, 2010
In "Shutter Island," director Martin Scorsese has created a divinely dark and devious brain tease of a movie in the best noir tradition with its smarter than you'd think cops, their tougher than you'd imagine cases to crack and enough nods to the classic genre for an all-night parlor game.
It's 1954, the heart of the Cold War, with a conspiracy theory around every corner, when Leonardo DiCaprio's U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his new partner, played by Mark Ruffalo, are dispatched to an asylum for the criminally insane to investigate a dicey disappearance. One of the facility's most notorious patients, a young mother who drowned her three children, has somehow vanished from a room monitored 24 hours a day, its door bolted from the outside.
But there are deeper mysteries here, and Scorsese has a lot more on his mind than one crazy inmate on the loose. The A-bomb threat is ever present, memories of Nazi death camps linger and rumors of questionable scientific experiments by the asylum's doctors are circulating. Though the more central question, gathering force like the coming hurricane, is the very nature of sanity and insanity.
Bit by bit, the filmmakers begin to shift all that trouble onto Teddy's shoulders, already weighed down, we've been told, by the death of his wife and the knowledge that her killer is an inmate at the asylum.
But Teddy's problems are never too much for Scorsese and DiCaprio, who in their fourth collaboration have developed an ease evident in every scene. Here the actor slips so deeply inside Teddy's skin that it allows his anxiety to creep under ours, while the director makes the most of that naked vulnerability, moving the camera in so close we can see the look in his eye, and that is unsettling indeed.
All the action takes place on a remote island off the Eastern Seaboard where Ashecliffe Hospital sits, with the sinister look of things serving to ratchet up the sense of jeopardy. Dante Ferretti, in his seventh film with Scorsese, sets the stage with his production design, the asylum itself a looming Gothic architectural throwback that never looks less than intimidating. There is a carefully orchestrated soundtrack from another of the director's pals, singer-songwriter Robbie Robertson, literally coming in with a crescendo every time you feel the urge to whisper, "Cue ominous music."
Between the psychopaths, the psychiatrists and the skeletons in Teddy's closet, the line between reality and delusion, sanity and insanity, soon begins to blur. It is here that the film really begins playing around with the psyche, both Teddy's and ours, though the agenda is laid out from director of photography Robert Richardson's first images of Teddy reeling from seasickness in the claustrophobic latrine of the prison ferry on the ride over -- tortured eyes looking back at us from the mirror as he splashes water onto his face.
Water is an image Scorsese returns to again and again -- the ocean that isolates the island, the relentless hurricane that rages down, the drowned children of the missing inmate. Peril, rather than life-sustaining, seems to be the relevant allegory here, so you soon start worrying when anyone turns up wet.
Using noir's narrative style, often to brilliant effect, it is pure pleasure to watch as Teddy parries with his partner, the hospital staff led by Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), the inmates or the security detail, with John Carroll Lynch particularly good as the brick wall of Deputy Warden McPherson. It's probably never better than in a confrontation with the shadow king of Ashecliffe Hospital, Max von Sydow's Dr. Naehring, Teddy throwing down hypotheses suggesting his guilt like a gauntlet, Dr. Naehring deflecting each one with bemused irony.
In its own way, Laeta Kalogridis' screenplay, which is based on the Dennis Lehane bestselling novel, turns into Teddy's most formidable adversary -- never letting him rest as obstacles are thrown in his path and paranoia rises with every step he takes.
We're pulled deep into a maze so complex it threatens to cloud the story, beginning with Teddy's tortured memories of his wife, Delores (Michelle Williams), and the migraines that plague him, to say nothing of his World War II soldiering days, including the liberation of Dachau and the horrors that implies. When the missing patient (Emily Mortimer as the younger Rachel, Patricia Clarkson the elder) mysteriously turns up, Teddy's gut tells him a lot of questions remain. As if by design, the hurricane finally blows in, cutting off access to the mainland and creating a dark and stormy night filled with scary sounds, ideal conditions for sleuthing around all those off-limits areas that any decent insane asylum has. While it's clear Scorsese is having great fun tightening the screws at every turn, some of the psychological tension that should have the crackle and shock of electricity in a thriller like this is lost in the crowd.
There is always a sense that Teddy's running out of time, and for a while we don't know exactly why. Once we do, Scorsese sets about tidying things up a bit too fast, like a college professor who knows he's got to let the class out, so let's just get through this, shall we.
Whether it's a rushed dénouement or a tendency to overindulge in delusions, the flaws are never enough to do permanent damage to the film. Ultimately, Scorsese has given us a new noir classic, though watching Di- Caprio's Teddy twist in the wind while his mind unravels would be satisfying enough.
“Shutter Island” takes place off the coast of Massachusetts in 1954. I’m sorry, that should be OFF THE COAST OF MASSACHUSETTS! IN 1954! since every detail and incident in the movie, however minor, is subjected to frantic, almost demented (and not always unenjoyable) amplification. The wail of strangled cellos accompanies shots of the titular island, a sinister, rain-lashed outcropping that is home to a mental hospital for the CRIMINALLY INSANE! The color scheme is lurid, and the camera movements telegraph anxiety. Nothing is as it seems. Something TERRIBLE is afoot.
Sadly, that something turns out to be the movie itself, directed by Martin Scorsese and adapted by Laeta Kalogridis from a peculiar contraption of a thriller by Dennis Lehane. Like Shutter Island in the opening scenes, the full dimensions of the catastrophe come into view only gradually. At first everything is fine, or at least not quite right in a way that seems agreeably intriguing. Mr. Scorsese uses his considerable formal dexterity — his intimate, comprehensive understanding of how sound and image work together to create meanings and moods — to conjure a tingly atmosphere of uncertainty and dread.
The vessel of these anxieties is Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Teddy Daniels, a United States marshal taking a ferry ride out to the island to investigate the disappearance of a patient. Mr. DiCaprio, having grown perhaps overly fond of his accent from “The Departed,” brings it along for the ride, and it spreads through the movie like a contagious disease. Teddy’s partner (pahtnah), Chuck Aule, played by Mark (Mahk) Ruffalo, is supposed to be from the Pacific Northwest but he seems to have left all his R’s back in Seattle. Michelle Williams pops up in smudgy, color-drenched memories and hallucinations as Teddy’s dead wife, Dolores, her intonations as thick and clammy as chowder.
Those dialect-coached Boston inflections predominate in “Shutter Island,” but are not the only voices heard on the grounds of the asylum, where the patients perambulate like zombies and the orderlies lurk like vengeful specters. Ben Kingsley is Dr. Cawley, the psychiatrist in charge, with silky upper-crust menace in his voice and a diabolical little beard on his chin. Max von Sydow spouts Freudianisms in insinuating Germanic tones that remind Teddy — and of course not only Teddy — of Nazis, an association that helps to induce gratuitous flashbacks of corpses stacked outside death-camp barracks.
Those images emanate from Teddy’s troubled mind, the status of which is one of the movie’s chief mysteries. There are many others besides. Intimations of conspiracy, supernaturalism, cold war shenanigans and a whole lot more float around in the atmosphere, which is convulsed by operatically bad weather and the energetic furrowing of Mr. DiCaprio’s brow. As he interviews patients and staff members, trying to figure out how a woman named Rachel Solando could have vanished, barefoot, from her cell, Teddy is plagued by headaches, bad dreams and paranoia. Everyone he talks to seems to be harboring a secret, but what can it be?
Is there some kind of espionage-related psychological experimentation going on? Is it connected in some way to grisly medical research undertaken during the Third Reich? Are Dr. Cawley’s methods, which he claims are a humane advance over the cruelty and superstition of the past, really a form of madness in their own right? And what about the strange coincidence that Shutter Island apparently houses the firebug who caused Dolores’s death?
All of these riddles send out tendrils of implication that end up strangling the movie, the plot of which does not so much thicken as clog and coagulate. Mr. Scorsese, ever resourceful, draws on the influence of Alfred Hitchcock, the master of carefully orchestrated psychological confusion, and also nods in the direction of Mario Bava, the Italian horror maestro whose gothic fantasias routinely assert the triumph of sensation over sense. Mr. Scorsese’s camera sense effectively fills every scene with creepiness, but sustained, gripping suspense seems beyond his grasp.
And the movie’s central dramatic problem — the unstable boundary between the reality of Shutter Island and Teddy’s perception of it — becomes less interesting as the story lurches along. You begin to suspect almost immediately that a lot of narrative misdirection is at work here, as MacGuffins and red herrings spawn and swarm. But just when the puzzle should accelerate, the picture slows down, pushing poor Teddy into a series of encounters with excellent actors (Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley, Patricia Clarkson) who provide painstaking exposition of matters that the audience already suspects are completely irrelevant.
Mr. Scorsese in effect forces you to study the threads on the rug he is preparing, with lugubrious deliberateness, to pull out from under you. As the final revelations approach, the stakes diminish precipitously, and the sense that the whole movie has been a strained and pointless contrivance starts to take hold.
There are, of course, those who will resist this conclusion, in part out of loyalty to Mr. Scorsese, a director to whom otherwise hard-headed critics are inclined to extend the benefit of the doubt. But in this case the equivocation, the uncertainty, seems to come from the filmmaker himself, who seems to have been unable to locate what it is in this movie he cares about, beyond any particular, local formal concern. He has, in the past, used characters whose grasp of reality was shaky — or who stubbornly lived in realities of their own making — as vehicles for psychological exploration and even social criticism. But both Teddy’s mind and the world of Shutter Island are closed, airless systems, illuminated with flashes of virtuosity but with no particular heat, conviction or purpose.
“Shutter Island” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Blood, swearing, cigarettes.
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Directed by Martin Scorsese; written by Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane; director of photography, Robert Richardson; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; production designer, Dante Ferretti; produced by Mr. Scorsese, Mike Medavoy, Arnold W. Messer and Bradley J. Fischer; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 18 minutes.
WITH: Leonardo DiCaprio (Teddy Daniels), Mark Ruffalo (Chuck Aule), Ben Kingsley (Dr. Cawley), Michelle Williams (Dolores), Emily Mortimer (Rachel Solando), Patricia Clarkson (Rachel Solando), Jackie Earle Haley (George Noyce) and Max von Sydow (Dr. Naehring).
By Nick Pinkerton
Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, a florid art shocker that Paramount welcomed into the world with the strained enthusiasm of a mutant baby's parents, begins with U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leo DiCaprio) seasick, head in the toilet. The film is his prolonged purging, with Daniels coughing up chunks of his backstory in flashback and dream. Now topside, he joins his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), and their destination looms into view: an ominous hunk of rock in Boston Harbor that houses Ashecliffe Asylum, where they've been assigned to find a missing inmate.
Pounded eighth notes by Krzysztof Penderecki score a gathering-storm approach that anticlimaxes at a tidy, ecclesiastical-looking brick campus. They're shown the grounds by progressive chief physician Dr. Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley), who manages to seem both a natty, patrician liberal, circa 1954, and a bit of a satyr, with his Anton LaVey bald head/goatee combo and ironic twinkle—an ambiguous balance Kingsley keeps seesawing throughout. They also meet Cawley's colleague, Herr Doktor Naehring (Max von Sydow)—and Daniels, an ex-GI who witnessed the liberation of Dachau, takes an immediate dislike to the German.
As Daniels and Aule begin to investigate, there's a sense that their presence is an inside joke with the staff, that they're being given rehearsed misinformation. Daniels reveals that he'd heard sinister rumors about Ashecliffe long before this assignment, and not even a pretense of cooperation and normalcy can outlast their first hurricane-force dark-and-stormy-night on the island, when they trade their soaked civvies for orderly uniforms. (The film is elemental, whipped with fire, ash, snow, paper, bracken, and torrents of rain.)
As the outline of a conspiracy comes into view, Daniels's digging brings on strobing headaches, hallucinations, and a shrinking list of trustworthies that ultimately includes only his dead wife, dolorous Dolores, visiting him as a beyond-the-grave Technicolor prophet (Michelle Williams, not quite right for "ethereal"; it doesn't help that she's upstaged by Emily Mortimer's psychopath, who takes only one scene opposite DiCaprio to establish an immediate and spellbinding intimacy). As for DiCaprio, well, he'll never step onscreen and immediately suggest a liver-and-onions Greatest Generation Ralph Meeker he-man—Ted Levine's warden almost eats him at one point—but he has made suffering a specialty, and does so with an abandon that is frightening.
Production design maestro Dante Ferretti's island is a rugged symbolist mythscape, pocketed with hidden places: soothsayers' sea caves, Ward C, a squat Civil War–era fort where the most violent offenders are kept in a Goya madhouse, and, beyond it, the ultimate locked door—to the lighthouse! Scorsese's return to his Roger Corman AIP roots is an object lesson in the proximity of high and low culture—Shutter Island is lousy with modernist references, soundtracked by avant-garde 20th-century composers, pretentious in the best Pulp-y tradition.
138 minutes is dangerously epic for a talky thriller, but you forget the time and even whether the plot makes sense—and if you don't notice, it doesn't matter. Since more attention has gone into filigreeing details into each scene than worrying about the way they'll fit together, the rattletrap engages you moment-to-moment, even as the overall pacing stops and lurches alarmingly.
Though the film takes place entirely out-to-sea, the mainland isn't left behind—it's concentrated here into a midcentury chamber of manmade horrors. Loonies praise their island as a safe haven from news "about atolls, about A-bombs." There are rumors suggesting the House Committee on Un-American Activities (!) is dabbling in brainwashing experiments. Daniels flashes back repeatedly to Dachau: a camp Kapo choking in his own blood; a firing line tracking shot popping with squibs like a string of firecrackers; piled corpses frozen into a horrible sculpture. No violence is unsuitable for aestheticization; at one point in the film's web of visions, the perpetrator of a triple filicide points proudly to her handiwork and says, "See, aren't they beautiful?"—and DP Robert Richardson's image concurs.
Scorsese is as famous a movie lover as a moviemaker. This is manifest in his too-much-discussed homages, but also in his understanding of how his characters have themselves been shaped by entertainment, how they model themselves as actors in the American drama—Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, or Bill the Butcher addressing his public with Edwin Forrest brio at a performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin in Gangs of New York. (The announced Scorsese project, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, dealing with our nation's premier self-publicist ham, has enormous potential.) Without revealing too much of an ending that everyone will soon insist on telling you their opinion of, Shutter Island, deep in its camp gothic trappings, seems to me a flea-pit occult history, with Daniels's headspace a confusion of "Hideous Secrets of the Nazi Horror Cult" schlock, hard-ass Mickey Spillane machismo, Cold War psychic confusion, and the post-traumatic bad dreams of ex-servicemen.
In his documentary Personal Journey, Scorsese spoke of the '50s as a time "when the subtext became as important as the apparent subject matter, or even more important"—and in Shutter Island, his most distinctly '50s movie, he replays the trash culture of the era as the manifestation of an anguished subconscious.