Dark, disturbing and worth viewing

Posted: Thursday, February 25, 2010

'Shutter Island'

Paramount Pictures

2 hours, 18 minutes

There are certain kinds of movies that are good at providing spooky thrills, atmosphere, and a generally good time at the theater. That doesn't really mean they're all that great, just that they are entertaining.

It's a rare director that can take a creepy psychological thriller and imbue it with real cinematic value, creating a true piece of art rather than merely a vehicle to sell popcorn.

That "Shutter Island" is so affecting and so powerful while maintaining what is, at heart, a pretty pulpy story is due in great part to the amazing talent of Martin Scorsese. It's a shame this wasn't released in the fall, as it was originally intended, as it might have been up for a few awards. As it is, the film is being released into a relatively uncluttered market, with few films for adults to compete with. It should do well at the box office, but I hope it doesn't just fade away as winter turns to spring.

Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, assigned to investigate a missing prisoner from a very unique prison. The year is 1952, and Shutter Island, off the New England coast, is home to the nation's only prison/hospital for the criminally insane.

The escapee is a woman who murdered her three children, and Daniels and his partner Chuck Aule arrive shortly after she is said to have simply disappeared from a locked cell. The case is mysterious, the prison staff evasive, and the only clue is a scrap of paper which suggests that maybe there is more going on at Shutter Island than meets the eye.

If that weren't enough, Marshal Daniels has a secret mission of his own, and nothing, not even his own life, is too big a price to pay in order to see it through.

There is almost nothing to complain about in "Shutter Island." The acting, including the ever-underestimated Mark Ruffalo as Chuck, is top notch. DiCaprio continues to prove that he is one of the finest actors of his generation, and with "Gangs of New York," "The Aviator" and "The Departed," has taken up Robert DeNiro's mantle as Scorsese's muse. Ben Kingsley, as the prison's head psychologist, is also very good in this film. Kingsley, who is without a doubt a brilliant actor, suffers from the Anthony Hopkins syndrome causing him to take splashy roles in big budget thrillers and action films, roles that require little to nothing of him, a fact that often reflects in his performance.

Not so here, however. Kingsley's Dr. Cawley is a great character and is quite well played. Scorsese handles the atmosphere beautifully, and the locations and sets are spot on.

The island itself is beautiful and foreboding. Even the music, which was slightly too loud at times, is appropriately jarring.

Oddly, for a film I was so impressed with, I didn't actually enjoy "Shutter Island" all that much. That's not completely true. Much of the film I enjoyed immensely. I was on the edge of my seat for most of the movie, keeping up with the twists and turns, but rarely second-guessing the plot. However, near the end, the film takes a decidedly dark turn which, though I won't spoil here, nearly caused me to get up and leave the room. The scenes I'm speaking of are not inappropriate, gratuitous or ill-advised in any sense -- they were just a little much for me to bear. "Shutter Island" is dark. It's right, but very dark, indeed.

"Shutter Island" is the latest in a series of books by author Dennis Lehane to be adapted to the big screen. I've not actually read any of Lehane's work, but the three films made of his novels so far have all been excellent.

The first, the Clint Eastwood helmed "Mystic River," was nominated for just about every award in the book, and brought Sean Penn and Tim Robbins acting Oscars. "Gone Baby Gone" was Ben Affleck's directorial debut, and was a near perfect film, as far as the crime genre goes. And now film legend Martin Scorsese brings us "Shutter Island."

It makes me wonder what it is that Lehane does so right in his books that they translate to the screen so well. "Gone Baby Gone" did well critically and passingly well at the box office, but I've heard nothing about a sequel, which is too bad.

There are several novels starring the leads in that story, and I'd love to see Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan reprise their roles. Regardless, it looks like I need to pick up a couple of Lehane's books and see for myself what makes him so attractive to Hollywood.

"Shutter Island" has been in the works for a while now. It suffered delays, release date changes, and the inevitable backlash to positive early word of mouth buzz.

But despite the off-screen drama, Scorsese has proved once again that he is brilliant in just about any genre he wants to try. Similar in feel to "Cape Fear," "Shutter Island" is smoother and subtler, and somehow much scarier. It'll be a while before I'll be able to watch this movie again, but I'm certainly glad I saw it.

Grade: A

"Shutter Island" is rated R for violence, mild gore, and disturbing, mature scenes.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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