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Review: In 'Shutter Island,' there's a method to Scorsese's madness

Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo, in the background, play U.S. marshals sent to a hospital for the criminally insane on Shutter Island to investigate a disappearance in 1954.

Paramount Pictures

Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo, in the background, play U.S. marshals sent to a hospital for the criminally insane on Shutter Island to investigate a disappearance in 1954.


Times Film Critic

For nearly the entirety of Shutter Island, it feels like Martin Scorsese should be admitted to the insane asylum he's splashing on the screen.

Every choice by this typically methodical filmmaker is so overblown — the loud, don't-go-there music, arch dialogue, how the camera moves and what the lens sees — that Scorsese's storytelling instincts seem to be evaporating before our eyes.

Then Shutter Island became one of the few movies to ever flat-out fool me — I haven't read Dennis Lehane's novel — with late twists of pretzel logic making everything bothersome about the movie something to admire. There is raving madness in Shutter Island and also in Scorsese's intensely gothic method, requiring more than usual patience and certainly a second viewing to appreciate.

Nothing will be spoiled here; just knowing that some things really aren't what they seem is enough, and might have aided my first impression. Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis convincingly point accusatory fingers in several directions, even the supernatural, in a puzzling case for U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Teddy has been dispatched to Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane on Shutter Island, off the Boston coast, in 1954. A patient has mysteriously disappeared, a woman named Rachel Solando, who murdered her children. It's an impossible escape from maximum security in a place that makes Alcatraz look like a seaside resort. The supervisor, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), is obviously hiding something, and Teddy's first-time partner (Mark Ruffalo) isn't eager to find out what.

The investigation takes Teddy to a former Nazi (Max von Sydow) and a host of grotesquely insane prisoners (or "patients," as Cawley insists), leading to a grisly subplot of inhumane psychotherapies. It turns out Teddy has a personal reason for taking this assignment, causing him horrific hallucinations in these surroundings, and is possibly drugged by the staff.

Meanwhile, a hurricane is bearing down on Shutter Island, cutting off communication with the mainland and threatening to set the inmates free.

The sheer volume of crises may be enough to frustrate folks who skipped the book, wondering when Scorsese will settle down and solve something, anything.

Eventually the solution hits like that hurricane, spinning the plot into even darker psychological thrills.

Even with awareness, the midsection of Shutter Island feels overextended with the director's intent to re-create madhouse B movies like Shock Treatment. But explaining what irked and then impressed me about Shutter Island— even the performances — is difficult without spoiling any surprises. That's a compliment to Scorsese's vision.

Hindsight tells me I should have known what was coming, but being blindsided is much more fun than guessing correctly. Every feverish clue is right there on the screen, getting on your nerves and then under your skin.

Steve Persall can be reached at or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at

. Review

Shutter Island

Grade: B+

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Max von Sydow, Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch, Elias Koteas

Screenplay: Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane

Rating: R; violence, disturbing images, profanity, brief nudity

Running time: 138 min.

On the Web

Times book editor Colette Bancroft knows Dennis Lehane's book and loved Scorsese's attention to its confounding details. Read her take on Shutter Island at, where you'll also

find a link to her interview with Lehane.

Coming Sunday in Floridian

Shutter Island co-star Ben Kingsley (that's Sir Ben Kingsley, thank you very much) wants everyone to know he isn't as serious or stuffy as his roles suggest. An interview with Times film critic Steve Persall.

Review: In 'Shutter Island,' there's a method to Scorsese's madness 02/17/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 17, 2010 3:30am]
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