‘Shutter Island’: Afloat in fear

From the first queasy scene, you are drawn into and captured by the ominous goings-on at Shutter Island.

Leonardo DiCaprio, playing U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, has lost the battle with seasickness as the ferry he’s riding on the Boston Harbor approaches the forbiddingly craggy island that houses Ashecliffe Asylum. His destination is the stately but chilling institution for the criminally insane.

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It’s 1954, and he is accompanied by partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of one of its inmates, who is a psychopath and a killer. From the moment they approach the rocky isle, the score — supervised by The Band‘s Robbie Robertson— pumps up the sense of foreboding with a creepy repetition of pounding musical chords.

It’s technically masterful, as only a film by visionary director Martin Scorsese can be, and an almost unbearable sense of tension simmers and occasionally erupts in the first two-thirds of the film. The production design by Dante Ferretti is impeccable.

Questions loom and rattle: Are the lunatics running the asylum? Is the entire terrifying place embroiled in a horrific conspiracy? Who can be trusted? And what does it take to catapult a rational person into madness?

While Ruffalo is convincingly congenial, DiCaprio’s blend of brooding and unease is riveting.

This is the actor’s fourth collaboration with Scorsese. His character is a sharp-eyed detective who is also damaged goods.

As he struggles to subdue recurring memories of his war service and the tragic death of his wife, you realize that an assignment at a clandestine mental institution is not the best idea for a troubled guy like him.

The rest of the ensemble is equally terrific.

The officious but outwardly sympathetic Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) keeps us off kilter. He seems intent on preserving the status quo, but is he guilty of something more?

He presents the marshals with their case: the mind-boggling escape of a delusional killer (Emily Mortimer). Cawley’s smug colleague, Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), further obfuscates the situation.

Hostility looms everywhere, emanating from both patients and staff.

Along the way, there are flashbacks featuring Daniels’ dead wife (Michelle Williams) offering guidance from beyond the grave. Her scenes are filmed in particularly vivid, bloody color, establishing a sharp juxtaposition to the gray and stormy environment of the asylum.

Patricia Clarkson has a superb cameo as a portentous character.

But there are weak spots. When focused on the insane asylum, the gloomy story — a Hitchcockian take on Dennis Lehane‘s novel — is unnerving and unrelenting. But it loses steam when it meanders into flashbacks, and a pat conclusion doesn’t help.

The denouement gets bogged down in large chunks of narrative explanation, presented in a strange blend of the overwrought and the obvious, undercutting the powerfully frightening scenes that went before.

Also, a too-long and too-grisly climactic scene plunges what had been an enjoyable psychological thriller/horror hybrid into something far more dark and disturbing. As invested as we are in the agonized character superbly etched by DiCaprio, the twist feels both expected and convoluted.

Still, despite its flaws, Shutter Island is worth seeing for the palpably nightmarish and gothic world conceived by Scorsese.

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