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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Leonardo DiCaprio may literally lose his mind investigating a case in Shutter Island.
Martin Scorsese is widely considered to be the world's greatest living filmmaker, largely because he turns in so many extraordinary works of art. But every once in a while, the director dips into genre filmmaking. That can throw some people off (hence the animosity toward Cape Fear in some circles). Personally, I think Scorsese is capable of making anything he wants and doing so in an interesting way. If his next picture was Tooth Fairy 2, I'd be the first in line to see it. Shutter Island is definitely a genre film - a thriller based on the best-selling Dennis Lehane novel. This is not to say that it is a film without substance; far from it, in fact. However, it is Scorsese's attempt to deliver a movie where the substance is used to make the mounting suspense even greater.

The story takes place in the 1950's. Leonardo DiCaprio, plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall being sent to an isolated mental institution off the coast of Massachusetts to investigate the disappearance of a psychotic woman who murdered her children. The woman seems to have vanished without a trace, despite guards and orderlies everywhere. Daniels is working with a new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), and both are suspicious of the facility's psychiatric guru, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley). He claims to have developed a cutting-edge treatment for extremely violent offenders, but Daniels and Aule suspect his methods may be unethical.

Not long after arriving on the island, a hurricane hits. Around this same time, Daniels begins experiencing unexplained phenomena. He gets horrible migraines and flashbacks to his late wife (Michelle Williams). The investigation he's conducting leads to a series of dead ends, so he sneaks off without permission to "Ward C" - the most fortified building that houses the most violent patients. In and around there, he meets several people, including George Noyce (Jackie Earle Haley) and a character played by Patricia Clarkson, who lead him to believe that the mental health institution may actually be a cover for something more heinous, and that he may be in danger.

I'm trying to dance around the plot because Shutter Island, like many thrillers, does have a last act twist. In all honestly, I figured that twist out within the first twenty minutes of the film. Even so, I'll go out on a limb and suggest that Scorsese wants us to figure it out. The fun of Shutter Island isn't in being fooled so much as in knowing what's coming and waiting to see how the characters get there. Even if you do see the twist in advance, it's more difficult to see how the pieces fit together, so the finale is extremely satisfying.

It should come as no surprise that Martin Scorsese would want to make a movie about mental health. His films have always dealt with people who are dysfunctional, violent, or troubled. Here, he's taking his fascinations to the next level. Throughout the course of the story, as events on the island become stranger and more suspicious, Daniels begins to experience hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia - all the things that likely brought the patients to the asylum. This is where much of the suspense comes from. Daniels considers himself a sane person, but when dropped onto a deserted island populated largely by people who are not sane, it starts to tear away at his own sense of psychological security.

From the start, Scorsese paints the facility as an ominous place. As the marshals approach the island from the water, we see the mass looming in front of us from the perspective of the boat. As they enter the main gates, heavily guarded by armed men, we see it as though the camera is strapped to the front bumper of the car. This immediately gives us a sense that we're entering dangerous territory. Jonathan Demme did a similar thing in The Silence of the Lambs when he used a tracking shot to show us Jodie Foster's visit to the dungeon to see Hannibal Lecter. The visual style becomes increasingly extreme throughout. The more walls Daniels hits in his investigation, the more Scorsese uses lighting tricks, intentionally hard edits, and other cinematic devices to convey the mounting confusion.

Shutter Island represents one of Leonardo DiCaprio's finest performances. Daniels starts out as a bit of a mystery to us, but as the plot unfolds, we sense more and more of who he is. By the end, we get a complete picture. DiCaprio expertly plants all the seeds early on so that when his character comes full circle, we believe it. The supporting cast is also excellent, with Kingsley, Haley, and Ruffalo turning in uniformly strong work. I don't want to give away the specifics of the Patricia Clarkson character, except to say that she is here to provide a lot of exposition. Characters such as this can be tough to play because they are often thankless. Clarkson takes this role, though, and sells it beautifully. It never feels like the story stops for her; instead, it feels like she contributes something essential.

Shutter Island will not be for every taste. There's not likely to be a lot of in-between as far as opinions go. People will either love it or hate it. I loved it and suspect it's even better on second viewing, when you can more carefully study how the pieces are being assembled. This is a movie about extreme mental illness, which can be a scary thing because it's so difficult to understand how people can disappear so far away from themselves. Scorsese uses that to create a hypnotic and disturbing thriller. Shutter Island is a near-masterpiece.

( 1/2 out of four)

Shutter Island is rated R for disturbing violent content, language and some nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 18 minutes.

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