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Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010 08:03 am

Stranded on Scorsese’s Island


Mark Ruffalo as Chuck Aule and Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island.

The degree to which you like Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island depends upon how much you like to be manipulated. If you’re looking for the sort of movie that pulls the rug right out from under you and causes you to question all that has come before, this will be right up your alley. If such things make you feel cheated, well I’m sure The Wolfman is playing right down the hall.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Teddy Daniels, a federal agent who’s been sent to Shutter Island with his new partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), to investigate a strange disappearance. Seems a patient (Emily Mortimer) has vanished from her cell and after an extensive search, is still missing. Her physician, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) is at a loss as to what to do; yet he’s hesitant to provide the officers with all the information they need. Equally mysterious is the fact that a series of interviews with various patients yields nothing, while the astute Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) alludes to a past that may not be as upstanding as he would have us believe.

It soon becomes apparent that everyone on the island is hiding something. As the detectives uncover one clue after another, it’s recommended that you make a mental note of each piece of evidence. Trust me, this will come in handy later as the film contains a twist that, upon reflection, might not add up and surely isn’t plausible.

I don’t think Scorsese’s slumming here. He’s too smart for that, but the film comes off as more a genre experiment for him. Scorsese, long an admirer of the atmospheric horror films of Val Lewton, attempts in Island to recreate the sort of psychological horror found in Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. The documentary Scorsese produced, Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows, is a stunning piece of film history that should be sought out.

However, he lays it on too thick what with ominous musical cues and in allowing nuances in the performances of the cast that telegraph “something’s up” from the start. The atmosphere of the film couldn’t be more eerie or claustrophobic. If you hadn’t picked it up from the title, isolation is the prevailing theme. What with a hurricane that wipes out communication and prevents a ferry to the mainland from docking, these two aren’t trapped in an old dark house, as much as on an old creepy island. Scorsese and production designer Dante Ferretti (Sweeney Todd, The Aviator) emphasize the feeling of being trapped again and again by fostering an oppressive mood with tight camera angles and dingy, dank sets that reek of filth and neglect. If you don’t mind being bludgeoned with the obvious, you may enjoy the excess on display.

Too be sure, there’s far too much talent on board for the film to be a total waste. It’s fun watching the seasoned cast, which also includes Jackie Earle Haley, Patricia Clarkson, Michelle Williams and Ted Levine, try to elevate this material from its pulp origins. For a while they succeed, but in the end — and what an ending it is — we realize that they’ve all been in the service of an exercise in misdirection that left me feeling cheated rather than intrigued. I felt more than a bit stranded by Island, a film that winds up being deceptive in all the wrong ways.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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