The latest chapter in Martin Scorsese’s fruitful DiCaprio phase is the haunting psychological thriller Shutter Island. Based on the bestselling novel by Mystic River author Dennis Lehane Shutter Island casts Leo as U.S. Marshal Edward “Teddy” Daniels a World War II veteran and recent widower assigned with investigating the escape of a female inmate from Ashecliffe Hospital a facility for the criminally insane housed on an ominous island outside Boston Harbor.
Ashecliffe Hospital is the Casa Bonita of mental institutions a decaying storm-battered Gothic fortress packed with raving homicidal crazies from all sides of the lunatic spectrum. Orderlies dressed in asylum white and almost uniformly African-American attempt to subdue their screams while impassive physicians subject their brains to all manner of rudimentary — and often barbaric — experimental “treatments” considered cutting-edge in the early ‘50s. (Shutter Island's story is set in 1954 back when lobotomies were regularly dispensed and homosexuality was still officially classified as a mental disorder.)
The proprietor of this madhouse is Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) an effete probing psychiatrist whose bowtie alone suggests a near-infinite capacity for evil. (Seriously — never trust any bowtie-wearer not named Pee Wee Herman. Just look at this guy.) He’s flanked by the German-born Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sydow) a vision of clinical Teutonic malevolence wrapped in a labcoat and wire-rimmed glasses. Needless to say Marshal Daniels is immediately suspicious of both.
The case of the missing inmate proves to be something of a red herring and Shutter Island an abrupt conspiratorial turn when Daniels reveals to his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) his true motive for coming to Ashecliffe: Housed somewhere within its walls he believes is the arsonist responsible for the apartment fire that killed his wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) just a few years prior. What’s more Ashecliffe appears to be no mere hospital but rather a secret government facility wherein gruesome Nazi-inspired mind-control experiments are conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the hopes of gaining an edge on the Commies.
Suddenly faint sounds of the cuckoo alarm can be heard and as Daniels sets out to unravel the conspiracy the conspiracy has already begun to unravel him. Wandering through Ashecliffe’s creaking labyrinth he's beset by haunting visions and engulfed by Scorsese’s menacing atmospheric blend of flickering lights leaky ceilings violent thunderclaps deranged inmates and other classic crazymaking cinematic conventions. Throw in some abrupt smash cuts a jarringly arrhythmic score and an undercurrent of Cold War paranoia and you've got yourself one terrifyingly potent batsh*t crazy stew.
Sometimes too potent. Shutter Island's narrative is bedeviled by inconsistent pacing its slow burn all too often interrupted by overlong exposition-heavy dialogue exchanges that effectively halt the film's momentum forcing Scorsese to build the tension again from scratch as we struggle to process the revelations that have just been dumped upon us. And its extended "I see dead people" denouement strays into the hackneyed abyss of Shyamalan-land. Thankfully for us it doesn't linger long enough to spoil all the brain-scrambling fun.