Deep secrets 

Lehane novel sets up Scorcese's Shutter Island

For me, the weekend showing of Shutter Island had disaster written all over it. I missed the Friday night show due to general tardiness and one too many Double Hauls (when it comes to the local IPA, two can be one too many for motivational purposes), which probably turned out to be a good thing because based on the early sell-out of the Saturday afternoon showing, where my wife and I were denied tickets, there likely wouldn't have been a seat for me anyway.

I had brought the wife along as insurance because based on advance buzz (a different sort than the one I experienced Friday) there seemed a high probability of creepy, suspenseful, holy crap! moments—and my better half, unlike me, can watch those moments without cringing and shuttering her eyeballs behind her fingers. To compensate for my handicap, and to fulfill the obligation of the reviewer to be fully informed, I wanted her there to fill in any details my clenched fingers may have obscured.

You may be thinking about now that the reviewer also has an obligation to actually write about the movie in question, and on that count you'd be right. However, as this lengthy preamble can attest, Shutter Island is one of those movies that forces a reviewer into a precarious position—precarious enough to make it damn difficult to write about.

click to enlarge Is something burning?
  • Is something burning?

For if, as I did, a viewer lacks any pre-knowledge of the narrative structure and plot development of the movie's source novel, anything more than a cursory discussion of story in this review would do serious damage to that viewer's experience of the movie. Shutter Island is an exquisitely wrought head trip, and with movies in that category so few and far between, the obligation to preserve that veil of wonder for qualifying viewers would seem to supersede the obligation of the reviewer, whatever that might be, to stay on topic.

Good gravy, have I burned up enough words yet? No? All right, here's an attempt to provide a shade of context without, hopefully, revealing any significant content.

As it turns out, the wife's inability to make a later showing didn't hurt me, as Shutter Island contains surprisingly few seat-jumping moments—the sort of music-building-to-a-crescendo, hand-grasping-from-the-darkness, violence-so-sudden-and-fierce-it-freaks-you-right-the-hell-out moments employed by director Martin Scorcese to varying and successful effect in movies like Goodfellas, Cape Fear and The Departed.

What Scorcese achieves in Shutter Island is a dark and labyrinthine tale built with a narrative foundation strong enough to corral even the most skeptical viewer, yet peppered with enough subtle cracks to support the surreal twists that ultimately take this movie into rarefied air.

Leonard DiCaprio plays U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, sent to investigate the inexplicable disappearance of a prisoner (or "patient," as Daniels is constantly corrected) from an institution for the criminally insane located on an isolated island outside of Boston Harbor. The opening scenes feature Daniels barely hanging on to his sanity as he traverses a rough sea for which he has an unexplained but immense fear, and to be honest DiCaprio's over-the-top portrayal in the early going (leaning over the boat railing he puffs madly, like an arthritic blowfish, on a cigarette poached from his new partner) had me fearing the worst.

But as the movie develops and Scorcese, working with a script adapted from the novel by Dennis Lehane, continues to build the twin walls of foundation and deception, two things happen simultaneously: The movie catches up to DiCaprio's performance, and DiCaprio's performance becomes more nuanced, as the dramatic world around his character slowly loses its shape.

DiCaprio's work here is supported by a host of fine actors—Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams and Elias Koteas, to name a few—and each of them adds a subtle and specific shade of gray to the movie. But the real star here is the novelist Lehane, whose work has driven directors like Clint Eastwood (Mystic River) and Ben Affleck (Gone Baby Gone) into genius territory, and who can now add the venerable Scorcese to that list.

I cannot personally attest to the veracity of Lehane's written work, but it has clearly positioned the Harvard fiction teacher at the top of all contemporary film-source scribes. And the cumulative brilliance of the movies made from his books is a necessary and reassuring reminder that even in this age of CGI flash and pyrotechnic bang, story still reigns supreme.

Shutter Island is a film that burrows like a worm through your eyeballs (no finger barrier here!) and into your brain for days after you view it, in the best way possible. And if you've made it through this entire non-review, that's an experience you certainly have earned.

Shutter Island continues at the Carmike 10.

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