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by George Sax
Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island begins on the choppy, deep gray waters of Boston’s outer harbor under storm-brewing skies. The soundtrack music, meta-Bernard Hermann-like major chords and mildly dissonant counter notes, washes threateningly over this scene. It’s 1954 and a harbor ferry is bringing two US marshals to an island prison for the criminally insane. They’re investigating the reported disappearance from the facility of a woman who murdered her children.
The senior man on the team (Leonardo DiCaprio) would probably seem a little odd even if he wasn’t seasick. He confides in his new partner (Mark Ruffalo) that he was married but that his wife died in a fire, from smoke inhalation, which was “good,” he adds. Thus begins Scorsese’s most heavily styled, densely atmospheric movie.
On the island the two marshals encounter a briskly self-possessed, perhaps slightly evasive senior psychiatrist (Ben Kingsley) and his colleague, an ominously self-confident and ironic German émigré (Max von Sydow). The plot thickens, details not meshing; characters come and go, their identities hard to fix; DiCaprio’s Backbay accent slips in and out. We’re in the twilight zone of reality vs. illusion. Maybe the combat zone, too.
None of this is put in the service of a metaphysical or poetic exercise. It’s just for high and eventually hysterical melodrama. Scorsese loads on plot turns and spurs, and creates a hypertrophied Gothic tone. The movie was adapted by Laeta Kalogridis from Dennis Lehane’s movel and reportedly follows it with some fidelity, but the outré atmospherics must be mostly the director’s. He isn’t always helped by his leading man, DiCaprio, who portrays anxiety and confusion better than stolid courage and shrewdness, particularly given his unimpressive, boyish demeanor and voice.
All the mishegas gets radically rationalized at the very end, if not altogether explained. The risk of violating the movie reviewers canon of conduct, I’ll suggest that movie owes something significant to the German Expressionist silent film classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Scorsese seems to have ODed on the intoxicating allurement of moviemaking, its grand plasticity. He’s always expressed himself in movies with intensity, and often with exuberance. Shutter Island may have been an unwise choice of material. It’s allowed him to veer perilously close to self-parody.
Watch the trailer for Shutter Island
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