Shutter Island takes place off the coast of Massachusetts in 1954. I?m sorry, that should be off the coast of Massachusetts! In 1954! since every detail and incident in the movie, however minor, is subjected to frantic, almost demented (and not always un enjoyable) amplification.
The wail of strangled cellos accompanies shots of the titular island, a sinister, rain-lashed outcropping that is home to a mental hospital for the criminally insane! The colour scheme is lurid, and the camera movements telegraph anxiety. Nothing is as it seems. Something terrible is afoot.
Sadly, that something turns out to be the movie itself, directed by Martin Scorsese and adapted by Laeta Kalogridis from a peculiar contraption of a thriller by Dennis Lehane.
Like Shutter Island in the opening scenes, the full dimensions of the catastrophe come into view only gradually. At first everything is fine, or at least not quite right in a way that seems agreeably intriguing.
Scorsese uses his considerable formal dexterity ? his intimate, comprehensive understanding of how sound and image work together to create meanings and moods ? to conjure a tingly atmosphere of uncertainty and dread.
The vessel of these anxieties is Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Teddy Daniels, a US marshal taking a ferry ride out to the island to investigate the disappearance of a patient.
DiCaprio, having grown perhaps overly fond of his accent from The Departed, brings it along for the ride, and it spreads through the movie like a contagious disease.
Teddy?s partner (pahtnah), Chuck Aule, played by Mark (Mahk) Ruffalo, is supposed to be from the Pacific Northwest but he seems to have left all his R?s back in Seattle. Michelle Williams pops up in smudgy, color-drenched memories and hallucinations as Teddy?s dead wife, Dolores, her intonations as thick and clammy as chowder.
Those dialect-coached Boston inflections predominate in Shutter Island, but are not the only voices heard on the grounds of the asylum, where the patients perambulate like zombies and the orderlies lurk like vengeful specters.
Ben Kingsley is Dr Cawley, the psychiatrist in charge, with silky upper-crust menace in his voice and a diabolical little beard on his chin. Max von Sydow spouts Freudianisms in insinuating Germanic tones that remind Teddy ? and of course not only Teddy ? of Nazis, an association that helps to induce gratuitous flashbacks of corpses stacked outside death-camp barracks.
Those images emanate from Teddy?s troubled mind, the status of which is one of the movie?s chief mysteries. There are many others besides. Intimations of conspiracy, supernaturalism, Cold War shenanigans and a whole lot more float around in the atmosphere, which is convulsed by operatically bad weather and the energetic furrowing of DiCaprio?s brow.
As he interviews patients and staff members, trying to figure out how a woman named Rachel Solando could have vanished, barefoot, from her cell, Teddy is plagued by headaches, bad dreams and paranoia. Everyone he talks to seems to be harboring a secret, but what can it be?
Is there some kind of espionage-related psychological experimentation going on? Is it connected in some way to grisly medical research undertaken during the Third Reich? Are Dr Cawley?s methods, which he claims are a humane advance over the cruelty and superstition of the past, really a form of madness in their own right? And what about the strange coincidence that Shutter Island apparently houses the firebug who caused Dolores? death?
All of these riddles send out tendrils of implication that end up strangling the movie, the plot of which does not so much thicken as clog and coagulate.
Scorsese, ever resourceful, draws on the influence of Alfred Hitchcock, the master of carefully orchestrated psychological confusion, and also nods in the direction of Mario Bava, the Italian horror maestro whose gothic fantasias routinely assert the triumph of sensation over sense.
Scorsese?s camera sense effectively fills every scene with creepiness, but sustained, gripping suspense seems beyond his grasp.
And the movie?s central dramatic problem ? the unstable boundary between the reality of Shutter Island and Teddy?s perception of it ? becomes less interesting as the story lurches along.
You begin to suspect almost immediately that a lot of narrative misdirection is at work here, as MacGuffins and red herrings spawn and swarm.
But just when the puzzle should accelerate, the picture slows down, pushing poor Teddy into a series of encounters with excellent actors (Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley, Patricia Clarkson) who provide painstaking exposition of matters that the audience already suspects are completely irrelevant.
Scorsese in effect forces you to study the threads on the rug he is preparing, with lugubrious deliberateness, to pull out from under you. As the final revelations approach, the stakes diminish precipitously, and the sense that the whole movie has been a strained and pointless contrivance starts to take hold.
There are, of course, those who will resist this conclusion, in part out of loyalty to Scorsese, a director to whom otherwise hard-headed critics are inclined to extend the benefit of the doubt.
But in this case the equivocation, the uncertainty, seems to come from the filmmaker himself, who seems to have been unable to locate what it is in this movie he cares about, beyond any particular, local formal concern.
He has, in the past, used characters whose grasp of reality was shaky ? or who stubbornly lived in realities of their own making ? as vehicles for psychological exploration and even social criticism. But both Teddy?s mind and the world of Shutter Island are closed, airless systems, illuminated with flashes of virtuosity but with no particular heat, conviction or purpose.