Review: "Shutter Island" heavy on atmospherics

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 18, 2010 - 4:38 PM

Scorsese's latest has plenty of method, not so much madness.

"Shutter Island" is a great big bucket of creepy, so steeped in strangeness that if it was any weirder it would be listed by the government as a Class 1 controlled substance. That is not to say it is a good movie. It falls far short of that. But its overripe atmospherics put it in that rare class of failures that can only be made by talented people falling on their face while reaching for the moon.

Based on a mind-bending book by Boston noir specialist Dennis Lehane, the film takes us into the deepest abyss of Cold War paranoia and long-buried psychological secrets. The year is 1954 as U.S. marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner, Chuck Aule, arrive at fogbound Shutter Island off the Massachusetts coast. It's home to Ashecliffe Hospital, a federal facility for the criminally insane where multiple murderess Rachel Soldano has vanished from her locked room. As they investigate her disappearance, the mainland cops find the staff and physicians obstructive. Teddy, who is prone to migraines, begins to suspect that Dr. Cawley, the enigmatic asylum director, is spiking his aspirin with psychotropic drugs.

The story crosses the boundary from dark detective fiction to gothic horror as the marshals find hints of grotesque psychological experiments and a hurricane kills the power to the security system. The violent patients riot and Teddy is tortured by apparitions of his dead wife as he begins doubting his partner, his memory, even his own grasp on reality.

Director Martin Scorsese is aiming to create a journey into madness, but the result is a pastiche of artfully composed shock effects set to dissonant, avant-garde music. The film is constructed around a twisteroo that any fan of "The Twilight Zone," "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" or even "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" will see a mile off.

Scorsese is a psychologically astute filmmaker. In "Taxi Driver" and "Cape Fear" he opened a trap door in the civilized forebrain and threw a bucket of bloody meat to the hungry crocodiles writhing in the sewer below. But in sticking close to Lehane's bestseller he creates technically sophisticated melodrama instead of conjuring nightmares. Between the taut first reel and strong finale, the film drifts and dithers. For the first time ever in a Scorsese movie, I found myself glancing at my wristwatch impatiently.

DiCaprio, a sublime actor, offers a performance that is a series of variations on the theme of nervous tension. From the opening scene, when Teddy is nauseated on the voyage to Shutter Island, he seems more or less queasy. He doesn't descend from a self-assured, square-jawed lawman to a basket case. He seems all too visibly damaged from the outset. Scorsese's jittery camerawork cuts away from him elliptically, and the dank lighting obscures him, undermining DiCaprio's ability to engage the viewers. Not until a humanizing 11th-hour return to daylight and everyday reality does he have a chance to fully touch our emotions.

There are some fine supporting actors at work here. Ben Kingsley is formidable as Cawley, the mental hospital's sinister-seeming chief psychiatrist. Emily Mortimer makes a fetching young psychopath, and Patricia Clarkson registers powerfully in a single scene as a hermit who lucidly explains the insanity rampant on Shutter Island. Secondary characters can't carry a film, alas.

Perhaps recognizing the central story line's weakness, Scorsese decorates the film with symbolic tableaux -- hypnotically rotating phonograph albums, leaping flames, flashbacks to Teddy's role in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. These details are visually striking and might have worked if they grew organically out of the material, but they feel artificial, over-calculated and portentous. Light bulbs crackle to life with a sonic sting worthy of an electric chair; at other times ambient sound drops eerily out of the scene altogether. Characters in Teddy's increasingly baroque visions crumble into dry ash or gush blood like hemorrhaging hemophiliacs.

Because the main narrative isn't strong enough, audiovisual flourishes become the dominant aspect of the film. Instead of a relentless buildup of claustrophobic terror, we get eruptions of rats, World War II massacres and naked madmen leaping out of the dark. There's plenty of method in Scorsese's approach, but too little true madness.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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