The director puts his spin on the madhouse horror genre
When a movie has a twist ending, that can handcuff the reviewer who must try to describe the movie without giving away the twist. One also has to limit references to other, similar films (the heart of film criticism is comparison to previous works) for the same reason: fear of giving away the secret that the director is trying so dilligently to obsure until the moment when he decides to reveal what is really going on.
Shutter Island is Martin Scorsese’s take on a genre that has rarely been elevated to the A-list, the insane-asylum horror film. There have been a few like The Snake Pit and Bedlam. Of course the greatest film set in a loony bin, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, isn’t a horror film although horrible things happen.
The heart of any loony-bin tale is our fears about what really goes on in these institutions. The national mindset is that mental health facilities are where you are sent to become even more insane. The idea of compassionate doctors trying to heal minds trapped in a continuous loop of paranoia and fear doesn’t fit the profile of the classic genre. Those guys in the white coats are out to get us.
In order to put us in the right frame of mind, Scorsese’s take on the genre is set in the 1950s, with a screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River). We are introduced to Shutter Island via a ferry ride to the island off the coast of Boston taken by U.S. Marshalls Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). They are coming to the spooky Ashecliffe Hospital to solve the mystery of a missing inmate. Since this is an institution for the criminally insane, having a dangerous patient on the loose is not good.
Scorsese goes for the total creepy/scary vibe starting with the vaguely ominous doctors who run the place, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Dr. Naehring (played by one of the all-time masters of the creepy vibe, Max von Sydow). Toss in the Civil War-era buildings, a raging storm and the revelation that Teddy Daniels has a hidden agenda that has nothing to do with the search for the missing patient, and Scorsese has the set-up for an intriguing horror/thriller hybrid.
However, there is the problem with the twist that takes the film in a completely different direction. If you discover the twist too soon, it really spoils the intrigue and makes the movie feel like a cheat. Again, there are examples I could site, but I can’t because I’m hoping you don’t figure it out until the twist makes perfect sense and makes the film work. I jumped the gun and the film lost its spark.
This is a Scorsese film, so he makes the traditional elements of the genre come alive with his camera placements and cinematography as DiCaprio’s character is put through the emotional wringer of horrible memories, hallucinations and nightmares. Things that go bump in the mind are so much scarier than things that go bump in the night.
This is DiCaprio’s fourth film with Scorsese, so he has officially taken over the “director’s muse” title from Robert De Niro. He gives a fine performance with just enough emotional hints to make us realize we knew more than we realized all along. Ruffalo provides nice support, as do Kingsley, von Sydow and a solid cameo role by Patricia Clarkson.
My only regret is that I figured out where the movie was going a bit too soon.
The Academy Awards will be presented on March 7 and local movie theaters are giving us a chance to see some of the nominees. If you haven’t seen The Hurt Locker yet, brought back for a curtain call in theaters, this is the last chance to see it on the big screen. The Last Station, opening Friday, features Oscar-nominated performances by Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer. Also back for a second run is An Education, featuring the fabulous performance by Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan. Other Oscar-nominated movies still in theaters are Up in the Air, Crazy Heart, Precious, Invictus, The Blind Side, Avatar, A Single Man and The Lovely Bones.
Shutter Island **1/2
Directed by Martin Scorsese; rated R
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