Thrills and chills on 'Shutter Island' 

It is a testament to Martin Scorsese’s plentiful gifts as a storyteller that he could venture so far out of his comfort zone — or, more accurately, his perceived comfort zone — and respond with a film as mesmerizing and utterly confounding as “Shutter Island.”

Scorsese has descended into the criminal underworld so often, we need to be reminded from time to time that he isn’t condemned to stay there. (Remember “After Hours”?)

Here, he explores a different underworld: The hellish confines of the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane — standing ominously in the dark Atlantic off Boston — that’s as inhospitable as it sounds.

It is there, in 1954, that federal marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are sent to find an escaped patient who seems to have vanished into thin air.

Teddy isn’t buying it. The hospital’s chief physician, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), is unfailingly polite but strangely obstinate — what’s he hiding? And why do the orderlies, guards and inmates all offer stories that sound poorly rehearsed?

These are the questions that keep Teddy awake at night, but not for long.

By day, he is increasingly tormented by visions of his late wife (Michelle Williams), who insists her killer is hiding on the island.

When the lights go out, Teddy has visions of Dachau, where he aided in the slaughter of Nazi death-camp guards.

The case of the missing patient mysteriously solves itself, but we soon learn that Teddy has had another agenda from the beginning.

Aware even before his lurid hallucinations that his wife’s killer is on the island, and convinced that doctors at Ashecliffe are performing sadistic experiments on their patients, he is on a dual mission: to find the man who destroyed his family, and to sink Cawley and his insidious right-hand man (Max von Sydow).

“Shutter Island,” based on a novel by Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River”) hurtles along briskly toward a mind-blowing twist.

We are presented with two wildly conflicting realities and asked to choose between them. It’s a stunning turn of events that will leave you lost in thought long after you’ve left the theater.

Does it work? I think so. It’s not the sort of trickery you expect from Scorsese, who has never been confused with Hitchcock, but give him this: Playing by a new set of rules, he has mastered the game. At nearly 2½ hours, “Shutter Island” is never less than fascinating — a tense, beautifully shot melodrama driven by DiCaprio, haunted by demons and at his jittery best.


Shutter Island

Three and a half stars

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams
Written by Laeta Kalogridis
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Rated R
Running time 2 hours 18 minutes

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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