The Charlotte Observer - February 19, 2010


'Shutter' yields shudders - and ideas

by Lawrence Toppman


When was the last time you had to wait until the final sentence of a film to understand all the details? When was the last time you went to a genre movie – or what looked like one in spooky trailers – and realized the director had fulfilled that promise and meditated on his favorite topic?

“Shutter Island” does just that. After four decades, Martin Scorsese has earned the right to deliver a simple treatment of a simple theme with flair. But Dennis Lehane’s novel about an investigation at an asylum for the criminally insane lets Scorsese deal with the subject that connects almost all of his nondocumentary features: the reasons humans mistreat each other.

There’s little overt violence, though even the storm clouds hanging over this island seem pregnant with blood. The most horrifying thing in the story has happened before we come in, though we don’t know quite how or why for a long time.

Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis explore the consequences of violence – inescapable guilt, fruitless denial, pathetic justification – on scales large and small. They twist a knife in the gut while provoking the mind and touching the heart.

The film begins, tellingly, with illness: Seasick federal marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) pukes on the ferry from Boston to the island where mad folks are being imprisoned in 1954. The filmmakers remind us at once that seemingly healthy people can be overcome by irresistible impulses, a theme that runs throughout this picture.

Daniels and his new partner (Mark Ruffalo) investigate the disappearance of an inmate who left a locked and barred room without alerting a soul. They get surprisingly little help from Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), the pleasant and seemingly humane psychiatrist who runs the place.

Or is it surprising? Cawley answers to Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sydow), whom Daniels suspects of being a Nazi allowed to practice in America. The prison warden (Ted Levine) prattles cheerfully about the bestial natures of people. Daniels hears rumors that doctors on this unsupervised island are conducting experiments that will create a race of conscienceless killers for the U.S. government.

We seem to be in two kinds of familiar territory at once. A lone honest official, accompanied by a sidekick who supports him but thinks he’s exaggerating, puts his life on the line to unearth a conspiracy. Meanwhile, the tale unfolds in the frightening kind of setting Agatha Christie used 70 years ago for “And Then There Were None” – an island cut off from the mainland without phone communication or imminent ferry service, where anyone may be operating under a false identity.

But as Daniels collects data, he can’t reconcile bits of information. And he’s plagued by nightmares, one set in the Dachau concentration camp (which he helped liberate) and one about his slain wife (Michelle Williams), who urges him to quit.

Because Scorsese’s at the wheel, terrific actors do one scene (Patricia Clarkson) or a few lines of dialogue (Elias Koteas). Scorsese builds suspense by casting guys often seen as psychos: von Sydow, Kingsley, Koteas, Levine, John Carroll Lynch of “Zodiac,” Jackie Earle Haley of “Watchmen.”

The director has cocooned himself among old friends: not only DiCaprio in their fourth pairing, but music supervisor Robbie Robertson, cinematographer Robert Richardson and editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who has won three Oscars cutting for him). Their work is as watertight as the script by Kalogridis, a Davidson College graduate: There are no loose ends or false notes in any of it.

You’ll realize that, if you reassemble the puzzle pieces afterward. As you do, you’ll see that “Shutter Island” fits into Scorsese’s career pattern as surely as “Kundun” or “The Age of Innocence” or “Raging Bull,” all of which are about psychological or physical cruelty. “Island” offers the most overtly sinister setting in any of his films, but all of them lead through the dark labyrinth of the human soul.