Tuesday, February 23, 2010


By: The Mad Hatter

"Do you really want to know?"

We've all heard those six words at some point, and in all of us they evoke a certain unease. They answer a question with a question and tell us that we're not going like the truth. That's the feeling that lingers over much of SHUTTER ISLAND, that every single answer we get in this mystery will lead to further and more unsettling questions.

US Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are dispatched to Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of a patient from a federal hospital for the criminally insane. The facility's chief administrator, Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley), seems as perplexed as the marshals are, wondering how in the world it’s possible for a patient to get away from such tight security. However, he is also quietly worried since there are few safe places on Shutter Island to hide. So the longer the patient is missing, the more likely it is that the patient is dead.

As Daniels heads the investigation, he begins to fight off flashbacks of traumatic moments in his own past. He fights off memories of a liberating the Dachau concentration camp during World War II. He also has to contend with visions of his dead wife Dolores (Michelle Williams). She was killed when their apartment was burnt down by an arsonist who just so happens to have been committed to Shutter Island. She still haunts his quiet moments and seems intent on warning him to let it all go, leaving us to wonder, let what go?

As a vicious storm moves into the island making outside communication and departure impossible, Daniels and Aule start digging deeper into the goings on of Shutter Island. Unfortunately, every answer they get leads to six more questions, each more unsettling than the last.

SHUTTER ISLAND is a dark descent into the human psyche, but not one that seems concerned with the actual weight of a true psychological thriller. It's clear early on that things aren't always what they seem and that all the audience can do is continue further down the spiral. At first though, it feels a lot like pulp fiction—the genre, not the Tarantino film. You know the one—a storm is coming, the ferry can't leave the island, the phones are down, and the power goes out.

But it's at this point that the story really makes its mark. DiCaprio wears our tension and our fears on his face as he tries to put this puzzle together (and we get a good look at that face since he's in every single scene). We get prodded and poked with various faces giving us various explanations for what's going on, and much like Leo, we're left in a sad confusion as to which story to believe. After all, when the logic is being given to you by patients in a mental hospital, it leaves you in a quandary about which nut in the nut jar you think is being the least nutty.

Martin Scorsese hasn't made this sort of movie in a while. It echoes back to CAPE FEAR and BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, neither of which are the sorts of titles people bring up first when talking about the man's greatest films. That's not to say that this isn't a great Scorsese film. It's a complete vision and yanks you out of the reality you know for over two hours. It is filled with moments of deep despair, all of which are shown with gothic elegance. In a way, it's fitting that its release date was pushed to this late winter slot since the film echoes the mood of this time of year—a desire to find the promise of spring amongst the last throes of cold darkness.

Occasionally, I end up liking a movie that a lot of people hate, and in some ways, I wonder if SHUTTER ISLAND is that sort of film. It's not a "Leo Movie" though Leo is in it. It's not a "Scary Movie" though there are moments of true terror. So if either of these is what you're looking for, move on. However, if you feel like striking a match and trying to make sense out of the whispers in the darkness, then SHUTTER ISLAND is the movie for you. Just be careful which of those whispers you decide to believe.


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