Shutter Island

in Dick Flicks, Horror, Suspense/Thriller

Dick Flick Pick

  • Star: Leonardo DiCaprio
  • Director: Martin Scorsese
  • Writers: Laeta Kalogridis (screenplay), Dennis Lehane (novel)

“It was a dark and stormy night.”  That’s basically how “Shutter Island” opens.  U. S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is:

  1. hunting a murderer…
  2. who has escaped from an asylum…
  3. for the criminally insane…
  4. on a tiny island…
  5. that happens to be in the path of an oncoming hurricane.

You’d be hard pressed to cram any more tropes into the beginning of a horror flick.  But director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis (adapting Dennis Lehane’s novel) use this formulaic premise to spin a far more arresting, emotional, and thought-provoking story than most films of any genre.

As though the above equation isn’t enough, something is fishy on this Alcatraz-like Boston Harbor island.  The legion of guards seems too massively armed and overly wary.  Escaped murderer Rachel (Emily Mortimer) has apparently evaporated through concrete walls, and patients and staff alike are dodging Teddy’s attempts to investigate her disappearance.  There’s a sinister, super-secret fortress ward that is strictly off-limits and a Mengele-like doctor (Max von Sydow) who needles at Teddy’s psyche.  Our hero himself enters the scene blowing chunks on the wild ferry ride and spirals downhill from there.  And it’s never a good sign when the doctor in charge of the creepy psych ward (Ben Kingsley) says hello with a pair of pills.

It’s not long before Teddy and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) suspect that the “rehabilitation” hospital may be using its troubled clients for other, more Machiavellian purposes instead.  Teddy has his own secrets.  He maneuvered himself into the assignment because of a possible connection between the island and the man who killed his wife (Michelle Williams in a chillingly potent supporting role).  The more he and Chuck uncover about the hospital’s clandestine activities, however, the more it begins to look as though Teddy was the one being manipulated.  But it’s too late:  the storm has trapped the marshals on the island with scores of disturbed criminals and a whirlwind of hallucinations that may or may not be in Teddy’s mind.

Scorsese deploys an array of standard “bump in the night” tactics to astonishing effect, and he does not shy away from blood in his pursuit of horror.  But it is neither the ridiculous blood spray that drenches teen screamers nor the ridiculously escalating body count of a Stallone flick.  This is real blood – a gunshot to the head, a garroted throat – and its very realism triples the suspense.  Splice in a delirium of surreal flashbacks and phantasms, and all bets are off.  Anything can happen in this ever-shifting world.

Unlike most horror films, which blow off mental illness as a convenient excuse for mass murder and cheap thrills, “Shutter Island” delves into the tragedy at the core of all these stories.  Escapee Rachel was convicted of murdering her own children; Teddy is deep in mourning for his wife; both marshals are veterans of still-fresh World War II (the film is set in the 50s).  Teddy, one of the liberators of Dachau, both witnessed and participated in numerous horrors that refuse to let him go.  Haunting allusions to the concentration camps underscore the immeasurable human tragedy of the times as well as Teddy’s private and unending grief.

You can always tell when a film is based on a novel.  The characters are more complex, the story thicker.  “Shutter Island” is no exception.  There are layers upon layers, visually, emotionally.  Every single actor, from the lead down to the extras, skillfully brings these nuances to light.  The film never quite goes where you think it’s going, and DiCaprio will take you places you would never expect from a horror film.

When you’ve seen the whole story unfold onscreen, all the twists and hidden surprises, and you still want to go back and read the book, you know the screenwriter’s done her job right.  This is a film that transcends its genre, that makes you jump at shadows, that stabs into your heart, and that niggles at your brain long after the screen goes dark.

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