By Felicia Feaster
It’s 1954. Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a federal marshal investigating the disappearance of a female patient from Ashecliffe Hospital, a remote asylum for the criminally insane on an island off the coast of Massachusetts.
Along for the ride is Daniels’ new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), an amiable sort who tends to back up his boss in even his increasingly paranoid musings. Daniels has a theory that the doctors of Shutter Island may be worse than their mad-hatter patients. When a hurricane whips up on the island, the pair are forced to wait it out for the ferry, despite a newfound certainty that something sinister is afoot.
An atmosphere of trauma pervades the film. We find that Daniels was one of the American soldiers on hand to liberate Dachau, and the images haunt him in dreams and waking hallucinations. Thickening an already meaty psychological broth, Daniels’ beautiful young wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) has died in a fire, but she’s as real a presence in his life as concentration camp corpses and Nazi commandants.
Whether director Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island works for viewers will depend on their tolerance for films they know are playing mind games, and their willingness to wait to see what mind games, exactly, are being played.
Shutter Island is somewhat hobbled by our sense that Scorsese is playing a little beneath his talents and slumming in the schlock-fest psychiatric thriller genre. We’ve come to expect greater artfulness, tighter pacing and more memorable characters from the august 67-year-old director.
Instead of characters in Shutter Island we get, as the genre demands, a succession of ghouls: mental patients who appear to have been run through a meat grinder before being deposited naked in their roach trap cells; a creepy, manipulative German psychiatrist Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow); a prison warden (The Silence of the Lambs’ Ted Levine), who looks like he eats a bowl of human souls for breakfast.
On a deeper level—below the cheeseball thriller riggings—one imagines that the asylum is a metaphor for Scorsese’s work. It’s more about the deepest, darkest reaches of the human mind than an actual place. Daniels can’t open a door at Ashecliffe without finding some fresh horror to fuel his belief in an epic hospital conspiracy, and Dolores—her back smoldering like a dying campfire—keeps turning up to remind him he needs to get off the island tout de suite.
Compelled to do the very opposite, Daniels keeps digging deeper and deeper into the mire with a demonic energy. There is no craggy seaside cliff, dank cave, forbidden ward or electrified lighthouse he won’t tackle.
In that way, DiCaprio is in every way an alter ego for the intrepid auteur, who tirelessly digs himself into films and stories, refusing to let go.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
With Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, Max von Sydow and Ted Levine
Dreamcatcher, Regal Stadium 14