Out of the Past

Shutter Island, adapted by Laeta Kalogridis from a novel by Dennis Lehane, directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow (2009-2010): Scorsese’s best film in a decade or more is a slightly overlong and a bit overbaked but still fascinating thriller.

The year is 1954, and DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshal sent to a high-security psychiatric facility on the otherwise unpopulated Shutter Island to discover how a female patient managed to disappear from a locked room. Only a once-a-day ferry connects the island, 11 miles off the East Coast, to the mainland. Where did she go? And why is everything and everyone so gosh-darned sinister?

Scorsese has created a loving homage to the first cinematic wave of film noir, the murky post-WWII thrillers that eventually became their own sub-genre of movies. The psychological and physical damage of World War Two to returning American soldiers was a prime constituent of first-wave noir, and it is here as well. The liberation of Dachau marked then-soldier Daniels for life; the murder of his wife in a fire set by an arsonist further damaged his psyche. And now he’s on an island of severely damaged men and women, and severely creepy doctors and nurses.

Even Daniels’s partner Chuck (Ruffalo) is a mystery, having just joined Daniels for this assignment. The chief psychiatrists, played by Kingsley and Von Sydow, seem weirdly menacing and unhelpful. The warden sounds crazier than the inmates. A hugely destructive storm traps everyone on the island. What will happen next? And what does a cryptic note left by the vanished patient, referring to a “Rule of Four” and a “67”, really mean?

Paranoia seeps into everything. The landscape and settings drip with Gothic menace even in broad daylight. Daniels begins to see a larger conspiracy at work, one that reaches to the top levels of government. And what’s inside the heavily guarded lighthouse? I guessed the major plot twist half-an-hour into the film, but that only added to my enjoyment of the way the whole thing unfolds, and the other twists that come along. Highly recommended.

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