On The Big Screen: Shutter Island

Four years after winning the Academy Award for directing The Departed, Martin Scorsese returns with Shutter Island, which once again stars Leonardo DiCaprio. Trailers for the movie aired last year, anticipating a fall release date, but Paramount could not afford to release the film until this month. Unfortunately for Scorsese fans, this delay caused the film to miss the entry date for the 2009 Academy Awards. Upon first glance of the previews, Shutter Island appears to be a horror film. In reality, the genre is best described as action-thriller, with small sequences of hallucinatory dark scenes. This is not a movie where you have to fear something jumping out at you, which the spooky trailers suggest.

In the film, a U.S. Marshall (DiCaprio) and his partner (Mark Ruffalo) are summoned to an island hospital for the criminally insane to investigate the disappearance of a particularly violent inmate. The style is 1950s noir, with almost painfully dramatic music throughout the entire film. Scorsese plays with the audience’s anxiety for almost the entire two-hour running time, using the exaggerated mood heighteners of sound and visual effects. As soon as the investigative pair reaches the island, Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) begins to doubt what actually happens to the patients on the island. The psychiatrists and staff are questionable characters, and Daniels tries to seek out the truth behind various aspects of the prison. Ben Kingsley, who is central to the creepiness of the institution, plays the head psychiatrist and executes his part flawlessly. As the partners are led around the island, they find a note in the escaped prisoner’s cell that reads, “The sum of 4. Who is 67?” making reference to an additional patient who is not on record. There are hints that the hospital is actually a scientific, psychological testing ground, with all the patients under a sort of spell. The film becomes increasingly hallucinatory as it unravels, forcing the audience to discern the real from the imagined.

I did not anticipate Teddy Daniels’ frequent flashbacks to Dachau, a concentration camp he helped liberate during World War II as an American soldier. There are some gruesome occurrences, as well as some graphic, carnage-filled scenes. The same scenes are often repeated, most prominently one of his wife in a yellow-flowered dress with a frightening look on her face. As for the general atmosphere of the hospital, it was well-executed. Some of the inmates are frightening, but not unrealistically. The audience struggles along with Daniels to try to ascertain which characters should be trusted. The ending remains uncertain until it unfolds, creating an absorbing anticipation right up to the credits.

For any fans of thrillers or Scorsese, I would recommend this movie, although it runs on the long side. Do not be discouraged by the previews: the film is entertaining instead of scary, but when award season comes, I wouldn’t expect Shutter Island to garner the same amount of hype as The Departed.

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