Shutter Island

3.5 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: December 31, 2010
Night of the Living Dolls

Witnessing horrific acts has and always will be the stuff of mental anguish, trauma, nightmares and—particularly if directly involved in them—copious amounts of willful blindness.

The preponderance of replying “I’m fine,” when the opposite is true is just one daily example of burying one’s true state of mind.

What better way, then, to open Shutter Island than with a ferryboat emerging out of the fog on its way to dock at the isolated mental institution for those who have committed violent acts—“often murder.”

On board are two U.S. Marshals—summoned to investigate the apparent escape of a “patient” (using the term “inmate” goes against the institution’s extensive protocol.). Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio with an accent that never truly finds its way into New England twang) is the more experienced of the pair, yet his first scene is heaving at the foot of “john”—seasickness seems to play against character until he prophetically disparages such “a lot of water …” Struggling back to the forward deck he passes, unnoticed, handcuffs dangling innocently overhead.

Once safely ashore, the deputy warden (John Carroll Lynch sets a good tone, even managing to endure his mood-jarring “dick” line) ushers the federal law enforcement officers to the main buildings, going by a telling “Remember Us, We Too Lived, Loved and Laughed” plaque along the driveway.

In just these few introductory moments the art and craft of the purposely confusing film ahead is revealed. (Perhaps the last “Teddy” to play so fast and loose with actuality appeared in Christopher Nolan’s marvellously constructed Memento.)

Based on Dennis Lehane’s third novel, screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis has done a fine job of playing with reality—both characters’ and viewers’. As the nothing-is-really-what-it-seems plot unfolds (Daniels’ investigation of the sudden disappearance is turned upside down to the point where he is forced to wear “inmate” whites even as his search for another drives him further into himself), there are enough red herrings and unexpected twists to keep the mind engaged—eager for the next surprise. The weakness comes via the dialogue’s out-of-tune attempts at humour: “Usual isn’t a big part of our day,” offers a resident nurse during the staff interrogation.

Fortunately, the music chosen to underscore the ever-increasing sense of unease and mystery (artfully selected by Robbie Robertson) is a constant pleasure, occasionally (Krzysztof Penderecki’s Passacaglia from Symphony No. 3, György Ligeti’s Lontano, Lou Harrison’s Four Hymns: II for Cello and Double Bass as well as music by and about John Cage) trumping the drama (notably in the early-on arrival at the nerve centre of psychiatry where frequent experimental treatments straddle both drug therapies and more permanent lobotomy procedures).

Yet, again, a possible moment that should pay off mightily down the narrative road more patronizes than prepares the way. Daniels’ partner (a four-year veteran who can’t get his gun out of its holster… Mark Ruffalo does his best in the unbelievable impersonation) suggests the piano quartet on offer is from Brahms, only to be readily corrected by his “legendary” partner (“Mahler,” says Daniels following a flashback—the first of many—to the horrors of Dachau). Not to be outdone, Dr. Jeremiah Naehring quotes chapter and verse (including the A Minor tonality of the Austrian’s only surviving chamber work) to one-up everyone even as his Germanic past ushers in a further layer of discomfort.

As usual, director Martin Scorsese has assembled a stellar cast (notably Michelle Williams as the mother with a horrific past and Ben Kingsley as Dr. John Crawley, the ever-affable shrink-in-charge). He’s also blessed with a first-rate crew that fill the screen with a truly fantastic array of images and seamless editing (still, perhaps a page or two is required from James Cameron’s Titanic effects book as the brief voyage to the island provides no feeling that the determined agents are anywhere but on a soundstage).

Mystery enthusiasts will enjoy every turning point and be left with much to discuss after the credits. Those still waiting for DiCaprio to put on a bravura performance that plumbs every emotion (his pain is surely felt even as his bewilderment remains too close to the surface of “fine”) must be patient once again.JWR

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