Martin Scorsese’s Slow Boat to Crazy

02/17/2010 3:00 AM |

Shutter Island
Directed by Martin Scorsese

“Sanity’s not a choice,” says asylum shrink Dr. Crawley (Ben Kingsley), in the 1954-set Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese’s new slow boat to crazy. It’s a daunting thought, but maybe not as much as the reverse proposition, perhaps of more recent vintage: that we must resolve, moment to moment, to remain sane, or not to deviate. That’s a problem for federal marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is tasked with finding a missing murderer at the Asheville institution for the criminally insane, a King Kong-ish island redoubt off the Massachusetts coast. As Teddy conducts his questioning on and off campus, he’s stonewalled and bewildered at every exchange, forced to turn blind corners down a personal labyrinth.

Adapted from the pulpy novel by Dennis Lehane, Scorsese’s first feature in four years is a pile-up of mood: trauma noir (think Act of Violence), on top of Val Lewton foreboding, with a dash of Leave Her to Heaven gorgeous torment. Scorsese frontloads jurisdictional jockeying—Teddy and partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) must surrender their guns and yield to guards—but the clues and secrets in the investigation are a red herring, dissolving and interchangeable like placeholders in a dream. The name of the game is exquisitely maintained mood and well-expressed psychological strain, a sure match for swelling-itching-brain poster boy Leonardo DiCaprio.

DiCaprio’s quick-tempered Teddy comes with nightmares at the ready: a single flimsy decade separates the World War II veteran from Dachau, resurgent in flashbacks. He’s wracked by regret, rage, castration anxiety, theatrical delusion—starring a toothily jolie-laide Michelle Williams as late lamented wife—and pure unreconstructed trauma. He is also, consequently, poorly equipped for the serial mano a manos on the film’s hurricane-shadowed terrain: parrot-headed Kingsley’s maddeningly level shrink (and colleague Max von Sydow), Ted Levine’s fucking-with-ya warden, Patricia Clarkson’s commanding escapee, and Jackie Earle Haley in a cage.

Despite the customary extra-helping runtime, Shutter Island can’t be mistaken as a lumbering late-Scorsese pageant, nor simply some supersized B-movie with all possible history (mentioned: HUAC, North Korea, Nazi experiments, and more). Scorsese manages to go big and small simultaneously, and though the last step is a doozy and redolent of the weaknesses that come with the movie’s sources, its inevitability nonetheless carries its own emotional weight. If Teddy is another of God’s lonely men that stalk through Scorsese, then the island is one of his most potent visions of the self trapped, impregnable, and exposed all at once.

Opens February 19