'Island' will make you shudder, in good way
By Bill Goodykoontz
Gannett Chief Film Critic
For all the talk of 3-D drawing us into the experience of watching a movie, of which "Avatar" is the logical extension, I can't recall a movie in a long time in which I felt so totally immersed as in the old-fashioned, two-dimension "Shutter Island."
It's not a great movie so much as it is great moviemaking. It's basically a potboiler genre film, a B-movie with big talent attached. But the care, love and astounding skill of director Martin Scorsese, along with the claustrophobic story (based on the novel by Dennis Lehane), combine for a film that stays with you long after you've given up trying to figure out whether everything you've just seen really adds up.
It doesn't matter. For more than two hours, the audience is submerged in a world of increasing madness, shot and directed in such a way as to be almost tactile. A storm and hurricane figure into the story; at times you'll want to reach for a raincoat.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a federal marshal who arrives, seasick, at Shutter Island, an isolated hospital for the criminally insane, to try to find a missing woman institutionalized there after she drowned her three children. Teddy is accompanied by his new, deferential partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), of whom he knows practically nothing.
Once on the island, they're subjected to the rules of the place: No weapons, and everyone defers to Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), the psychiatrist who more or less runs the place. Teddy, like Cawley, is mystified as to how the woman could have gone missing, since the hospital is so tightly — and creepily — guarded. To make matters more difficult, Cawley and Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) won't allow Teddy to look at patient information; instead, he has to conduct interviews with the patients, which lead nowhere.
Or do they? It turns out that Teddy has other reasons for wanting this case. His wife (Michelle Williams, seen in flashback) was killed in a fire, and he believes the man responsible is on the island, as well. He is beset by memories of his wife, as well as nightmares of his service in World War II, in which he helped liberate a death camp (something which does nothing to make him think any more fondly of Naehring).
A storm rages outside and is quickly turning into a hurricane; the ferry back to the mainland is shut down. As the destructive storm rages, Teddy is blinded by migraines. His suspicions mount — as do ours.
The mystery here is not as compelling as Scorsese's telling of it. The terrible beauty of the storm, the creepiness of the surroundings, the unease intensified by the patients who, for the most part, lurk about the margins, make for an unsettling experience — and a wholly enjoyable one, as well.
DiCaprio, who does his best work with Scorsese, is very good; you'll just have to trust me, because to say how and why would give too much away.
Kingsley is satisfyingly difficult to read. The same can be said of Ruffalo.
Ted Lavine is fantastic in a brief scene as the warden, explaining his theory of man's true nature to Teddy.
For a while now, Scorsese has seemed more interested in making entertainments than searing personal statements, such as "Taxi Driver" or "Raging Bull."
And that's fine — as long as you make entertainments as well-crafted as "Shutter Island." If it's not destined to be ranked among Scorsese's greatest films, it's certainly one of his more entertaining ones. And that's plenty good enough.