“Is it better to live as a monster or die as a good man?”
Some facsimile of this facile question, which pessimistically resolves itself in an impending lobotomy, is tossed out at the end of Martin Scorsese’s slippery thriller, Shutter Island, but not before the film has entertainingly, but without any kind of depth, dragged us through shifting identities, tortured memories and considerable backtracking of plot. The script by Laeta Kalogridis adapts Dennis Lehane’s novel.
Grimly exhilarating, this is one of Scorsese’s better films—so long as one doesn’t take it seriously. But some will find that difficult, given the Medea-character who (perhaps) drowns her three young children, the point-blank marital shooting that (perhaps) follows, and the detours into Dachau, which evidence either hallucination or haunted memory. It may be impossible to get one’s moorings on Shutter Island.
There, isolated from mainland Boston, Ashecliffe Hospital provides care for the criminally insane—or performs federally sanctioned experiments on them, like the Germans performed a decade earlier. Dr. Jeremiah Naehring (Max von Sydow) could be the hospital’s own Mengele, appropriated by the U.S. government after the war. Moreover, Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley) might even be the establishment’s Caligari, given a certain gleam in his eye toward the end suggesting that protagonist Teddy Daniels’s “insanity” lays some claim to the truth. Damned if I know.
With his disappearing partner, U.S. Marshal Daniels is ostensibly investigating a patient’s disappearance. Throughout this film, women characters mostly appear as flickering apparitions. Amidst a raging storm that prohibits the marshal’s return to the mainland, Scorsese conjures spectacular images on the island, which is awash in fear and paranoia.
Normally not a favorite of mine, and greatly helped by his role’s ultimately insubstantial nature, Leonardo DiCaprio is magnificently anguished as Teddy Daniels.
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