Scorsese's 'Shutter Island' Forays Into Fear

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Photo: <b>Specter of past grievances.</b> Leonardo DiCaprio delivers an intense performance as a U.S. marshal who investigates the eerie happenings at a hospital for the criminally insane.    

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Emerging from the mist like a specter of past grievances, Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" is a beautiful absurdity-a 138-minute odyssey into the subconscious of an American master. Closely derived from Dennis Lehane's 2003 novel of the same name, the film transports the noir genre back to its vaunted roots, creating a world in which every frame drips with unsettling portent.

Scorsese's latest foray into the realm of troubled masculinity unfolds on a remote island off the coast of Boston, where a Civil War-era fort has been transformed into a hospital for the criminally insane. A patient mysteriously vanishes from her cell, prompting an investigation led by U.S. marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). An unshakeable feeling of melancholy builds as they arrive at Shutter Island by sea, accompanied by a sinister one-note musical rumble and signs of a gathering tempest.

Their first roadblock emerges when both the prison head doctor (Ben Kingsley) and his colleague (Max von Sydow) provide only evasive answers to their inquiries about the case. As a hurricane strikes the island and all connections to the outside world are severed, Teddy and Chuck are led to reconsider the veracity behind their hosts' intentions. Their uncertain situation is mirrored by the elemental instability around them, as trees snap and crack in the wind and the storm howls its way into Teddy's psyche. "A lot of people know about this place, but no one will talk," Teddy laments to Chuck, as other inmates whisper and look on.

As Teddy's past is slowly unveiled through flashbacks interspersed throughout the film, his struggle to make sense of the mystery of Shutter Island leads to horrifying revelations. Gruesome memories of World War II resurface, a deceased love beckons, past and present collide in a series of macabre dream sequences. Tapping into his vast directorial arsenal, Scorsese builds the film to a fever pitch through a masterful array of cuts, extended takes, frenzied close-ups and ominous long shots.

To reveal more would be unthinkable. As its labyrinthine plot goes from peculiar to psychotic, "Shutter Island" seizes our hearts and minds in an iron vise and refuses to let up. Trapped in a psychological struggle that can only be described as Kafka-esque, Teddy Daniels embarks on a downward spiral into madness. Grief and guilt transpire like swift blows to the gut. DiCaprio plays his character with an otherworldly, scenery-chewing intensity, pulling us into his ordeal and merging our worldview within his increasingly deranged one. His performance is at first haunted, then haunting; on subsequent viewings of the film, it will almost certainly grow in stature.

On another note, "Shutter Island" reaffirms the notion that there are few filmmakers who possess Scorsese's encyclopedic knowledge of movie history, and even fewer with the ability to channel this passion as skillfully as he does. Though the film opens with a title card announcing the 1954 setting, in retrospect it's almost an unnecessary gesture: Costumes and set pieces aside, the film's atmosphere recalls post-war film noir in all its baroque splendor. From Michael Powell and Alfred Hitchcock to Jacques Tourneur and Orson Welles, the imprints of Scorsese's influences can be found everywhere, providing small but delicious cinematic moments that redeem the film's occasional pacing flaws.

If a director's body of work is to be measured by the quality of each individual output, then "Shutter Island" will likely accomplish for Scorsese's career what "The Shining" did for Stanley Kubrick, as an opus of madness by a filmmaker whose tank is still far from running dry. From its menacing build-up to its blind-siding denouement, "Shutter Island" excites, provokes, moves and terrifies. It's Scorsese the cineaste at his most unhinged, at once taxing and exhilarating. In Teddy Daniels, we witness a tortured hero whose pain endures. His words remain with us long after he strides out of view in the final shot, pondering the destiny of stable men in a crumbling world - as are we.

David Liu is the lead film critic. Contact him at [email protected]

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