Dennis Lehane's character-packed but gimmicky novel Shutter Island earns a slightly less gimmicky film from Martin Scorsese, who makes this 1950s period piece his tribute to the psychological thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock.
In 1954, a couple of federal marshals make their way to an island off Boston Harbor, home to Ashecliffe, a prison hospital for the criminally insane. Leonardo DiCaprio is Teddy Daniels, a World War II vet who is suspicious of everything. Mark Ruffalo is his new partner.
A prisoner has escaped and is probably loose somewhere on the island. Daniels instantly mistrusts the psychotherapist in charge. Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) has the prop of the 1950s movie psychologist: his pipe. And he seems a little too understanding of the criminals in his care. He has some "new" ideas about dealing with the criminally insane, "a moral fusion between law and order and clinical care."
The marshals meet resistance when they try to question the staff. There are too many places on the island that are off limits, too many questions about the staff (Max von Sydow is a senior psycho therapist).
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And Daniels has issues. He saw things at Dachau, did things that give him nightmares. He lost his wife some time after that. He had reasons for wanting to take a look around the island before this disappearance. No wonder he smells a conspiracy.
And his partner? He just asks, "You OK, boss?" at all the right moments.
Scorsese, working from a script by Laeta Kalogridis, boils down the tale to a series of interrogations — set-piece scenes between DiCaprio and the formidable Kingsley and von Sydow, the doctors, and inmates played with harrowing glee by Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Elias Koteas and especially Jackie Earle Haley, who provides the most hair-raising moments in the movie. It's a real actor's picture, with Michelle Williams movingly playing Daniels' dead wife and Ted Levine (Buffalo Bill of The Silence of the Lambs) as the sinister warden. To his credit, DiCaprio, looking rougher than ever, holds his own with them.
But as with the recent The Book of Eli, it's a picture that relies on big, third-act switcheroos of the type that Hitchcock would slip into his TV show. For all the big performances, the homages to Hitchcock's Spellbound and Vertigo, the history of psychotherapy, the vivid Holocaust flashbacks, the House Un-American Activities Committee references and a firm grasp of H-bomb conspiracy-mindedness of the era, the finale is a letdown, almost a cheat.
It's not bad, but as Scorsese, America's greatest living filmmaker and a film history buff, should know, even Hitchcock came up short on occasion.