In the opening sequence of “Shutter Island,” a thickly accented U.S. marshal (Mark Ruffalo) aboard a ferry near Boston points his finger from the bow and asks the pilot, “Is that where we're going?” Cue a shot of huge island, a hulking place that looks like it might hide the remains of King Kong. Because the boat's headed straight for the island, and because the marshal supposedly is competent and sane, an audience member, not to mention the ferry pilot, could be forgiven for asking, “Where else do you think you'd be going?”
The introduction may just be a way of saying we're entering into questions of sanity, but at least they'll be obvious. “Shutter Island” is a fun psychological thriller with roots in the B-movies of the '50s. Based on a book by Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River”), Martin Scorsese's film follows U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck Aule (Ruffalo) as they investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), a patient at the island facility for criminal lunatics. This isn't just any psychiatric institution, but a former Civil War fortress, approached with strangulated violin screeches to signify its creepiness, and harboring rusty old architecture that squats like a great iron growth.
Teddy and Chuck are introduced to Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), complete with beady eyes, pipe and attitude, who introduces them to the even more suspicious-looking Dr. Neahring (Max von Sydow), who Teddy suspects might be a former Nazi. A giant storm is headed their way, which they hope won't cut the power to Ward C, where the most dangerous lunatics are housed. Do you think it will?
Scorsese is a capable storyteller, and his eye for memorable images recreates a corner of 1954 that springs right out of the decade's own films, in word and deed if not in look. With or without the director's vast knowledge of cinema history, “Shutter Island” can be enjoyed as an above-average thriller, with great performances from DiCaprio and Ruffalo, fine editing and camerawork that is sure-handed if occasionally twitchy enough to call undo attention to itself.
DiCaprio's Teddy Daniels isn't the most memorable character Scorsese ever gave him, but the actor sturdily creates a regular Joe with an interesting back story: blood-and-guts service in World War II, where Teddy helped liberate the concentration camp at Dachau. These memories, along with the death of his wife (Michelle Williams) in an arsonists' blaze, cloud the character's judgment of the present, but also ground the movie in history — and it might be added, beg for a full-blown war film from Scorsese — while ramping up the movie's paranoia about the future. Most of the crazy people on the island are too afraid to leave; they've heard of the hydrogen bomb and television.
This hefty middle provides a gripping investigation into the nature of violence and sanity, questioning factual examples of mass barbarity and fact-based fictions, along with some everyday anxieties of the era. For every moment of clichAc Scorsese seems to have another bit of malevolent surprise up his sleeve, such as when an imposing warden (Ted Levine) debates the nature of violence with Teddy during an otherwise peaceful ride through the countryside.
The movie's split personality, however, can elicit curiosity or withdrawal. Doubtless Scorsese finds his references to past tropes amusing, but he sometimes forgets that some of them are still regular occurrences in bad movies. In fact, a portion of the audience likely will be reminded less of old films than old video games, or current ones. Islands full of lunatics are always common realms for game pads.
The movie's ending is a little disappointing: It goes off the deep end much like Teddy's head-first dive into rocky shoals to reach the island's mysterious lighthouse. It's a finale better suited for M. Night Shyamalan than M. Scorsese, with problems bigger than the plot holes it creates. Teddy's discovery is preposterous, the worst kind of fiction, something not only impossible to believe but self-ridiculing. In the movie's formulation, the treatment is crazier than the patient.
“Shutter Island” concludes on an interesting question: What's a worse fate, to die a good man or to live as a monster? I'm still pondering that one, but here's another: What's worse, to see a bad movie made by a good director, or sit through another winter of insanity? I'll take “Shutter Island,” probably a second time. (R) 138 min. HHHII