Shudder Island

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Running time 138 minutes
Written by Laeta Kalogridis
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring  Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Max von Sydow, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson

2.5 Stars out of 4

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Making important, sometimes even unforgettable movies is something for which Martin Scorsese seems hard-wired. Shutter Island is not one of them. Dense, ridiculously overplotted and painfully overlong, this gruesome thriller set in a fogbound insane asylum is incomprehensible and fatally flawed, but having said all of that, I will also say this: It never seems anything less than the work of a skillful film buff. Mr. Scorsese may be a smart aleck, but he’s a professional smart aleck.

Teaming with frequent collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed) and writer Dennis Lehane (Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River), the director returns to the Boston of both films to try his hand at the hair-raising thriller genre. The year is 1954, at the height of the red-baiting Communist terror of the Cold War (a time nobody cares about anymore, although important to the plot). Out of the fog, a ferry boat materializes, carrying two federal marshals, named Teddy (a seasick DiCaprio) and Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), who are on their way to the remote Shutter Island off the Massachusetts coast to find a dangerous female patient who has escaped from Ashcliffe, an asylum for the criminally insane. Almost immediately, they are confronted by gothic horrors inspired by Titicut Follies and plunged into a Thorazine nightmare that fishes for logic with a red herring on the end of every hook. From the evil staff of resident doctors led by Ben Kingsley and especially Max von Sydow, as a Nazi who may have performed medical experiments at Dachau, to the escaped psychopath who murdered her three children (Emily Mortimer), the two cops are up to their Humphrey Bogart hats in paralyzing terror. It’s 11 miles to the nearest land, and the water surrounding the island is subzero. Since the terrain is overgrown with poison ivy and thorns, escape on foot is impossible, and the woman they’re tracking down was wearing no shoes. Meanwhile, Mr. DiCaprio seems none too stable himself: migraine headaches and flashbacks to Hitler, concentration camps and his dead wife (Michelle Williams), who burned to death in a fire but keeps returning in dreams wandering through rooms of falling ashes. That kind of thing. Thickening the gumbo, Mr. Scorsese adds more patients—the firebug who killed her; a female psychiatrist hiding in a cave; and various frightened prisoners chained to their cells in the violent ward who claim that the hospital (financed by the House of Un-American Activities Committee) is doing to the patients on Shutter Island what the Nazis did at Dachau. Maybe I missed something in political science, but why would the Communists team up with the fascists just to send Lillian Hellman to jail? While the movie becomes more preposterous by the micro-minute, Mr. DiCaprio is confronted with the realization that he can’t trust anybody; one (or both) of the cops is an imposter. Cue the rainstorm, with howling, gale-force winds and thrashing, blinding lightning—and you wonder how Karloff and Lugosi stayed out of this one.

Mr. Scorsese cuts between the down-to-earth criminal investigation and the surrealism of the psychological nightmares with so much creepy detail that you can no longer separate fantasy from reality. The storm builds to a hurricane right out of a Dorothy Lamour movie, and you wait with anxiety to enter the dreaded lighthouse, where the doctors perform prefrontal lobotomies on stubborn patients by driving ice picks through their brains. Mr. DiCaprio is the next victim. From here, Shutter Island is less like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and more like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. How could this many talented people get so utterly, confoundingly messed up? How could a director considered such an icon make so much money and demonstrate so little control? He knows where to put the camera and what to do with actors in numbingly worthless roles (what are Jackie Earle Haley and Patricia Clarkson doing here?), and I really admire him for the work he’s done to preserve classic films and teach unschooled directors what simple, straight-ahead narrative filmmaking is all about. But Marty-love has created a disturbing dark side. Now he’s blended the elements he loves in film noirs and horror genres with mainstream moviemaking, to the detriment of movies. The result may appeal to vacant-eyed Scorsese fans too arrogant or embarrassed to admit they don’t have a clue what’s going on here. It looks like a committee made it up every day as they went along; when it still didn’t work in time for Christmas 2009, he went back into the editing lab and screwed it up some more. Too bad. Before it completely self-destructs, Shutter Island keeps you riveted.

I don’t mind telling you that this is usually my kind of movie. If only it made sense. The first hour is as savagely disturbing as any horror movie ever seen, but after more than two and a half hours, the ice cubes Shutter Island sends through the bloodstream begin to defrost. In the end, you feel lost and doomed, and you will never know why. Either Mr. DiCaprio is the victim of an elaborate conspiracy-theory plot, or he’s been insane for years already. The theme is insanity, and by the time this ordeal ends, you get the feeling it’s catching.

rreed@observer.com