CAPSULE: Martin Scorsese turns his hand to directing a psychological horror film. Two United States Marshals travel to an island off Massachusetts that is a cross between Alcatraz and an asylum for the criminally insane. The film is very moody and the plot is twisty and supremely melodramatic, though few of the twists seem like new ideas. Fans of psychological horror may have seen the material before, but rarely so much of it and rarely is the tone so perfectly presented. Laeta Kalogridis wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Dennis Lehane. I suspect this film is Scorsese's tribute to German Expressionism. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Shutter Island is a dismal piece of rock off the Massachusetts coast. It still houses a Civil War fort, but now, in 1954, the fort and two more wards make up Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, part asylum and part fortified prison. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels and Mark Ruffalo is Chuck Aule, two United States Marshals who are sent to Shutter Island to help look for Rachel Solando. Solando is an inmate who killed her own children and has somehow impossibly escaped from a locked cell. She is either dead or still on the island some place in hiding. The two marshals will need all the help they can get, but from the first moments on the island the marshals clearly are not going to get much cooperation from the staff.
From early on, this seems to be a plot suffering from a case of extreme over-stuffedness. Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) may be doing fiendish medical experiments on the inmates. But nobody will believe the inmates when they tell because they are considered insane. Also one of the inmates may be the man responsible for the death of Daniels's wife. Meanwhile, Daniels seems to be drifting into schizophrenia and sees his dead wife visit him. And when he dreams, his nightmares are terrible. Daniels is troubled by memories of an atrocity he took part in during the liberation of Dachau. Besides the creepy fort that is now a ward for the worst patients, there is also a creepy old lighthouse that can be reached only at low tide and which may house horrible experiments performed by the staff of the asylum. A category 5 hurricane is about to hit the island and may level the prison and/or drown the inmates chained to the floor. In the dark of the moon a beast from 20,000 fathoms wades ashore and topples the lighthouse. (Okay, I admit I made the last one up. The rest are real.) This is a longish 138 minutes of story, but it takes a director of genius to pack all of that into even a film of that length.
Most horror films have retread plots and if the plot-pieces of SHUTTER ISLAND are not so original, at least their profusion in a single story is. What is refreshing is the stylistic return to some of the conventions of German Expressionism of the 1920s and 1930s. In few films since the early Universal horror films (which liberally borrowed German Expressionism) have we seen such evocative visuals. This film seems to hark back to the German horror of NOSFERATU and THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, and to even greater German horrors at places like Dachau.
It is a surprise to see Martin Scorsese making a horror film when his most successful films have been crime stories. In fact, he seems to be a lover of all kinds of films and this film is in some ways a tribute both to the 1930s horror film and the 1950s crime film. DiCaprio and Ruffalo look pretty good in slouchy 1950s hats and coats. Scorsese even has a little nod to 1958's THE FLY when he borrows the line "I said catch them, not kill them." The film is just a little too long and the logic needs some rationalizations by the viewer, but logic problems are a hallmark of the old horror films.
Scorsese has made a horror film for film lovers. I rate SHUTTER ISLAND a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1130884/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1198124-shutter_island/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2010 Mark R. Leeper