Friday, February 19, 2010


Martin Scorsese’s movies have often been filled with horrors, but before Shutter Island he had never made a horror movie, in the classic, gothic sense.

It’s a tantalizing prospect. Scorsese is one of the two or three best American directors of his generation, & he has made some authentic masterpieces. At its worst, admittedly, his style can be hyperactive & tiresome & showy; it can get between the viewer & the story the movie is telling. Such was the case with his closest previous flirtation with the horror genre, his feeble, overcooked remake of the great psychothriller Cape Fear.

But at its best, Scorsese’s style is unpredictable & explosive, & it can generate a bristling, hallucinatory atmosphere. His one-of-a-kind spin on the conventions of the scary movie could be a formidable experience. Or it could be laborious dud.

In the case of Shutter Island, it’s the former. Indeed, Scorsese’s so in control of the material here that it’s deceptive. He lays on the brushwork of old-school melodrama so floridly that we begin to lose confidence in him, to think that he’s painted himself into a corner, that he’s sacrificed a coherent plot for the sake of offering us a series of nightmare flourishes. Creepy flourishes they are, too, but I started to doubt that there was any way he’d be able to sort out & make sense of everything he’d thrown at us. Yet everything came together at the end, & with a real shock, too.

The setting is an asylum for the criminally insane on a fictitious Boston Harbor Island in 1954. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a Federal Marshal who arrives on a ferry to investigate the disappearance of an inmate. After being politely stonewalled by the top shrink (Ben Kingsley), the Marshal & his deferential partner (Mark Ruffalo) are trapped overnight by a wild storm. As he probes more deeply into the island’s secrets, he quickly comes to suspect that the smooth-talking doc & his staff are behind sinister, even monstrous mischief.

Based on Dennis Lehane’s 2003 novel, adapted by Laeta Kalogridis, it’s a standard set-up for a chiller, & within its framework Scorsese indulges in standard phobic gambits, from grinning, leering lunatics to clutching hands to heights to swarms of rats to an ominous old lighthouse. The cinematography, by the great Robert Richardson, imbues the film with a rich, unobtrusively stylized look of midcentury Technicolor, & I enjoyed watching Scorsese serve up one traditionally macabre sequence after another without parody, & with only a faint, strategic whisper of irony.

He serves up fine acting, too, not only from DiCaprio, who ultimately gives, I think, his best performance yet, but also from a knockout supporting cast. Kingsley & Ruffalo, Ted Levine as a baleful warden, Jackie Earle Haley as wretched inmate, John Carroll Lynch as an officious guard, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, & Emily Mortimer as various mystery women, & the disconcertingly unflappable Max Von Sydow as a senior shrink all strike just the right tone, but a special word should also be said for Robin Bartlett, who nails her quick little turn as a sensible inmate who once took an axe to her husband.

What makes Shutter Island more than a skillful genre exercise, though, is the final revelation of the case. Though the clues are deployed in a professional & reasonably cunning manner, it’s not that hard, in technical terms, to figure out the mystery at the heart of the investigation. In emotional terms, however, the secret proves truly, woundingly horrific, & in such an appallingly believable way that it’s almost like a reproach, exploding the fun of the tale’s gothic trappings with a burst of genuine tragedy. I didn’t see it coming, yet in retrospect I could see how carefully & subtly Scorsese & Kalogridis had prepared me for it.

The agony of the film’s climax & the eerie serenity of its final moments seem almost like Scorsese’s comment on the theatrics that came before. It’s as if he’s saying that such spookhouse thrills are a comparatively comforting shutter we use to close out the horrors of the real world.

RIP to the lovely MGM musical favorite Kathryn Grayson, who has passed on at 88…

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