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In Noir Time

Scorsese infuses his 50s thriller with sights and sounds nods to other movies

The departed?: DiCaprio navigates Shutter Island's shadows and fog

By Emma Brodie | Posted 2/24/2010

As the theater lights lowered, the viewers of Shutter Island seemed reluctant to turn off their cell phones. It was as though they were all saying, "Turn it off? Then who will hear me scream?" All around, girlfriends cuddled up to their boyfriends, who in turn madly sipped their sodas as though looking for an excuse to go to the bathroom as soon as possible. A slasher? From Martin Scorsese? It sounded too gruesome to be true.

Shutter Island is as much a slasher as Key Largo, though it has three times the suspense and six times the intrigue, as Scorsese's takes noir and infuses it with elements of the psychological thriller. The movie opens in 1954 with deputy Marshall Teddy Daniels (the electrifyingly vulnerable Leonardo DiCaprio) joining his new partner Chuck Aule (an understated and exact Mark Ruffalo) on a ferry bound for Shutter Island, the isolated fortress set off the coast of Massachusetts housing the Ashcliffe Hospital for the criminally insane. Teddy and Chuck arrive at Ashcliffe to investigate the escape of a highly dangerous patient from her room, which is guarded 24 hours a day and locked from the outside. They receive little help from the deliciously menacing Dr. Crawly (Ben Kingsley) and the condescending and dry Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow).

Just as the cops are about to give up, Teddy reveals that he has reason to believe the man who murdered his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), may be a patient at Ashcliffe. Teddy's paranoia begins to grow as an unyielding stream of events involving a hurricane, inexplicable migraines, and a mysterious lighthouse cause him to question not only the purpose of his mission, but his concept of reality.

Shutter Island has stylistic merit independent of its storyline. There are several tributes throughout to Alain Resnais' acclaimed documentary Night and Fog, from the footage of the death camps to the juxtaposition of overwhelmingly ominous music with scenes of seemingly bucolic tranquility. Robbie Robertson's score nods to several of the more memorable John Williams themes, blasting overwhelming horns one moment followed by cloying pizzicato strings that makes your hair stand on end. Music is a fluid transitional element throughout the movie, classical records often acting as the catalysts for flashbacks of Teddy's sordid past, from the day he lost his wife, to the day his uniform stormed the death camps. The movie is just as much an experience for the senses as it is for the mind, submerging viewers into the world of Ashcliffe.

While incredibly suspenseful Shutter lacks subtlety. Though there are many effective red herrings and clues throughout, editing choices rendered the pace a little uneven and unwittingly reveal certain plot-points that should have been completely invisible. Worse, Scorsese's allusions start to feel derivative, like an attempt to combine the most shocking elements of The Sixth Sense, A Beautiful Mind, and Gothika. Viewers who have seen those movies may spend the majority of the final reel anticipating a concluding twist. While the ending isn't predictable, it's also not thrillingly or devastatingly shocking. Still, the majority of Shutter Island was sculpted with such acute attention to minutia that you will spend several hours afterward recalling details you'd hadn't noticed at the time.

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