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Shutter Island: movie review

Based on Dennis Lehane’s book, ‘Shutter Island’ uses all the classic horror-film pyrotechnics and old-school frights to build a paranoid atmosphere.

By Peter RainerFilm critic / February 19, 2010

Actors Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo DiCaprio appear in a scene from the Martin Scorsese film 'Shutter Island'.

Concorde Filmverleih 2009/Andrew/Handout/REUTERS


Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” is a pretty terrible movie but I can’t just leave it at that. It’s the kind of bad movie only very talented people could make, and that gives it a fascination. I watched it in a state of rapt bewilderment.

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Leonardo DiCaprio, who has made almost as many movies by now with Scorsese as Robert De Niro, plays US Marshal Teddy Daniels, who, with his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), is summoned to the forbidding, totally isolated Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of a mental patient and murderess from the Ashecliffe psychiatric hospital. The time is cold-war-era 1954, which only adds to the already paranoid atmosphere. Zombiefied patients eyeball the marshals with blank fury; doctors in residence, including the elegant Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and the German-accented Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), seem by turns accommodating and sinister. Nothing is what it seems on this island, except maybe the weather, which kicks into Gothic hurricane mode halfway through.

To an even greater extent than Quentin Tarantino, Scorsese is our leading film director-as-archivist. His movies are riddled with oddments and swipes and homages from the entire history of film, and none more so than “Shutter Island” (which screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis adapted from Dennis Lehane’s 2003 bestseller). It’s fun, in a film-school kind of way, to pick out the references: “Out of the Past,” “Laura,” “Isle of the Dead,” and so forth. And yet no one but Scorsese could have made this film. For one thing, no one else could so obsessively have bound all these movie references together.

But the question I kept asking myself throughout this overlong movie is: Why bother? Scorsese has made many movies in many modes, from “Raging Bull” to “Age of Innocence,” and he deserves as much as any filmmaker alive the right to punch out a commercial project. But “Shutter Island” isn’t as strictly commercial as, say, the egregious “Cape Fear.” Even though Scorsese tricks the movie up with all manner of old-school frights, complete with buckets of blood and doomy music on the soundtrack, he’s more ambitious than that. He wants to create a madman’s universe patterned not only on cold-war creepies like “Shock Corridor” but also on German Expressionist classics like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” He wants to show us how the tactics of horror schlockmeisters can give rise to art.