*Shutter Island (R)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
What do we know about U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio)? Let's start with what he knows about himself.
Teddy's a working-class Boston boy. He served in the second World War, and was present for the liberation of Dachau. Later, he had a wife (Michelle Williams), but she died. These things haunt him. Also, he doesn't like water, which could be an issue when he's in a film called Shutter Island.
Now, in 1954, he has a deferential new partner named Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), who seems uneasy with a pistol and calls him "boss" a lot, in spite of being older than him. Together they must track down a filicidal escapee from an insane asylum run by Ben Kingsley.
Ashecliffe, the place is called, which probably is not the most encouraging name, and it's sequestered on a spooky, weatherbeaten island off the Massachusetts coast. It's sort of an Alcatraz east, with water on all sides (including from above when the hurricane comes) and with much sinister ready-made melodrama within.
Speaking of which, you might think, who puts Ben Kingsley in charge of an insane asylum? Would you believe a former Nazi played by Max von Sydow? But that's the beauty of Martin Scorsese's film of Dennis Lehane's novel: Its willingness to go there. Even if the going will require a labyrinthine 2½ hours.
To be more precise, Ashecliffe is a hospital for the criminally insane, and whenever Teddy describes its inhabitants as prisoners or inmates, Kingsley's silky psychiatrist firmly corrects him. "Patients," he says. Patience? Apparently there are more ways than one to see and hear things on shudder island. It's the age of electroshock and atomic paranoia, and everyone seems to hope against hope that soothing revelations will be forthcoming.
Meanwhile, Teddy confides to Chuck that he's had his eye on this place — that the man responsible for his wife's death might be here. Then he starts getting headaches. His flashbacks seem increasingly like delusions, and his dreams start collapsing into each other. And just when he's had enough of the hospital staff stonewalling his investigation, the missing patient conveniently turns up. Less conveniently, she turns up twice — first as Emily Mortimer, then as Patricia Clarkson.
Add to this the insinuation of some hellish brainwashing program, and the lighthouse of lobotomies, and unequivocal inmate Jackie Earle Haley raving portentously in the dungeon of Ward C, and warden Ted Levine threatening to eat our beleaguered hero's eyeball, and you get ... well, a bit of a mess, but a tense and thrilling one to be sure. For all the stock shots of Teddy bolting upright into cold-sweat consciousness, his face lit up by lightning, there's the sense that any chance of ever being able to wake up from this has long since passed.
There's also the sense of Scorsese quite enjoying this rather commercial exercise, the bestseller-based suspense thriller as Gothic horror noir throwback. It lets him swim with his many influences. It lets him prove at last the reasons for his faith in DiCaprio, who really delivers.
What we know about Teddy does evolve, but only according to what he knows about himself. Which is to ask, "What would be worse: to live as a monster or to die as a good man?"