Running the Asylum

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“Shutter Island” (Paramount Pictures, 2010, 137 minutes) has all the ingredients of a satisfyingly dark, psychological thriller: an isolated setting, ambiguous foreshadowing, surreal flashbacks, an insane asylum, a sinister Germanic scientist (Max von Sydow), an intense soundtrack that rises to dissonant crescendos, and even the proverbial dark and stormy night. The story is twisted enough to keep the audience guessing, yet logical enough to convince the audience that its guesses are correct. Add Martin Scorsese as director, and the film is virtually guaranteed to be good — in fact, it’s one of the best little surprises of the season.

The year is 1954. Shutter Island is a maximum security institution for the criminally insane. Ted Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) have been called to the island to investigate the escape of an inmate (Emily Mortimer ) from a locked room. During the investigation several creepy inmates warn Ted to get away. Hints of Nazi-style biological experimentation fuel his growing paranoia — or could his rising panic be induced by the “aspirin” and “water” given to him by the institution’s director, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley)?

Whatever the cause, Ted is plagued by troubling dreams and flashbacks about his past. He was with the platoon that liberated the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, and his wife (Michelle Williams) was murdered by an arsonist. He relives both horrors in vivid Technicolor dreams. The rest of the film is artfully shot in dark tones that echo Ted’s darkening mood.

Scorsese’s direction is metaphorically satisfying as well. The storm outside the institution is a metaphor for the sturm und drang inside. Ted’s constant lack of matches with which to light his borrowed cigarettes suggest his lost passion, while Dr. Cawley’s pipe exhalations billow like an elaborate smoke screen as he spins a tale for Ted. But what’s the purpose of the unexplained bandaid on Ted’s forehead? This is a film that will keep you guessing right till the end.

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