Insanity reigns, or should I say rains, in “Shutter Island,” Martin Scorsese’s waterlogged ode to the cinematic joys of mental illness. Clearly, he’s crazy about this stuff. And you feel that love in every beautifully rendered shot of his admirably understated tale of bedlam inside an isolated Massachusetts state hospital for the criminally deranged. From the costumes to the sets to the acting, everything is sick, as in mad good. Well, everything but the preposterous story supporting it all.
Insanity reigns, or should I say rains, in “Shutter Island,” Martin Scorsese’s waterlogged ode to the cinematic joys of mental illness.
Clearly, he’s crazy about this stuff. And you feel that love in every beautifully rendered shot of his admirably understated tale of bedlam inside an isolated Massachusetts state hospital for the criminally deranged.
From the costumes to the sets to the acting, everything is sick, as in mad good. Well, everything but the preposterous story supporting it all.
To call Laeta Kalogridis’ adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel loony only begins to describe how way, way out there “Shutter Island” gets with its dabblings into 1950s paranoia.
It’s certainly ambitious, though, tossing in allusions to the Holocaust, Red Scare and unethical medical experiments, as it attempts to solve the mysterious disappearance of a patient committed after killing her three young children.
Sent to find her are two federal marshals played superbly by Mark Ruffalo and Scorsese’s muse, Leonardo DiCaprio. Together, they provide an appealing conduit into a clandestine world of shadowy figures and nefarious agendas. And those are just the people running the place.
You’re intrigued from the moment Ruffalo’s Chuck Aule and DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels step onto a ferry and journey out to the far reaches of Boston Harbor to a tiny ominous land mass called Shutter Island.
It is a world in and of itself with its own set of rules and a governing body led by Ben Kingsley’s Dr. Cawley and Max Von Sydow’s ex-Nazi, Dr. Naehring, two guys who would probably feel right at home in the waterboarding room at Gitmo.
Excising pain is their aim, as they empty a bag of archaic psychiatric tricks on a motley crew of patients, including a marvelous Jackie Earle Haley. Unfortunately, for him and his fellow inmates, it’s 1954, a time when shackles, lobotomies and rudimentary cages are all the rage when it comes to “curing” the criminally insane.
No wonder Rachel Solando has gone missing. But where could she possibly run to while trapped on a desolate island that could pass for Alcatraz if not for the more image friendly name of Ashecliffe State Hospital.
More to the point, is she even real? The fact that Rachel is played by both Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson, suggests she’s either a figment of someone’s imagination or an escapee from a Charlie Kaufman movie.
But then, that gray area between reality and delusion is precisely the point of both Lehane’s novel and Scorsese’s less satisfying movie. And it’s interesting up to a point, especially the way Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson (“The Departed”) bathe the entire production in an intoxicating dream-like haze.
As the story slogs along well past the two-hour mark, however, you begin to lose patience with all the mind trips Scorsese insists on playing. Instead of creating thrills and suspense, as intended, these tricks start leading you to believe that they are just that, tricks, all carefully assembled to mask a story that doesn’t begin to hold up to scrutiny.
It comes back to bite him in the end, when “the big reveal” stirs feelings of indifference more than genuine shock. It also feels like a cheap copout in much the same way Lehane’s “Gone Baby Gone” did when it unveiled its underlying secret.
Fault for that, however, falls more on the screenwriter than Scorsese, who once again proves what a master director can accomplish even if saddled with an inferior script.
He pulls out all the stops, too, paying homage to just about all of his favorite pulpy B movies from the 1950s. And the more you know about those mini-masterpieces like “Cat People,” “Laura” and “Crossfire,” the more you’re likely to dig what Scorsese is doing.
And what you’ll dig most is the level of performance he summons from DiCaprio, who has never been better at playing the brooding, emotionally scarred hero.
As a veteran of World War II and one of the liberators of the Dachau death camp, DiCaprio’s Teddy is toting some mighty heavy baggage rooted in what he saw and did during wartime. Add to that the horrific death of his wife (a radiant Michelle Williams spied in flashbacks) and it becomes a wonder he’s not a patient himself.
Not that his sanity won’t be tested, as a hurricane sets its path directly toward Shutter Island and indirectly triggers a roiling tempest inside Teddy’s soul.
This, naturally, means lots of shots of water, but it’s not necessarily a cleansing rain. But it does begin to wash away Teddy’s well-maintained facade. It’s an interesting transformation, but it also should have been a more compelling one.
The reason it isn’t can only be blamed on a script that fails to adequately define and develop its characters, a problem exacerbated by the film’s refusal to draw clear lines between what is and isn’t real. And in the end, that costs Scorsese dearly, as he and “Shutter Island” leave you feeling stranded.
Patriot Ledger writer Al Alexander may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.