A Hitchcock-eyed murder mystery
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Feb. 19, 2010
If "Shutter Island," a gothic thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo, were put to a free association test, the word most likely to come to mind would certainly be "weird." The movie begins in 1954, when two U.S. marshals, Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), arrive at the eponymous island just off Massachusetts, where looms the impenetrable Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane. The marshals have been detailed to find a prisoner -- er, patient -- who has suddenly vanished from her locked cell like a wisp of the smoke from one of their ever-present cigarettes.
As a hurricane bears down on the island, the Teddy and Chuck interview Ashecliffe's inhabitants and staff, all the while matching wits with the hospital's chief physician, the brilliant Dr. Cawley, played with poker-faced elan by Ben Kingsley, who insists that he is revolutionizing mental health by treating his patients with the compassion and dignity they deserve. And, oh, don't look too closely at that lighthouse over there, it's just a sewage treatment facility now, nothing to see, run along.
"Shutter Island" has been adapted from Dennis Lehane's novel by Martin Scorsese, who reaches back to nearly all his cinematic heroes -- Alfred Hitchcock, Samuel Fuller, Otto Preminger, with a dash of John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate" thrown across his shoulder -- to create a pastiche of moody atmosphere, stylized flashbacks and dream sequences and a devotion to flagrant violence that finally turns rancid and repulsive.
Teddy, a World War II veteran haunted by what he saw liberating Dachau, as well as the death of his wife (Michelle Williams), recalls the world-weary antiheroes played by Dana Andrews in so many noir classics (and there are moments when DiCaprio resembles a young Orson Welles playing him). But as "Shutter Island" proceeds -- mostly as a series of speeches and set pieces -- what is meant to be mysterious and unsettling becomes just plain incomprehensible.
And Scorsese's fascination with images of dead children -- drowned, bloodied, ashen-faced -- isn't sinister or scary or even creepy. It's just weird.
Contains disturbing violent content, profanity and some nudity.