‘Shutter Island’ a glorious, spine-tingling funhouse ride

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Leonardo DiCaprio in "Shutter Island"

by Bill Wine

Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.

Shudders are on the agenda.  Shivers too.  And squirms.  Maybe even a shock or two.  And all delivered with mind-bending finesse.

That's what's in store for you when you land on “Shutter Island” (2010), a superbly realized psychological suspense thriller from director Martin Scorsese.  It's a labyrinthian chiller that blends horror and tension with reality-versus-illusion mind games that absolutely envelop us.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Boston U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels, assigned, along with partner Mark Ruffalo, to look into the 1954 disappearance of a murderess who has escaped from a high-security correctional facility for the criminally insane.  She's presumed to be hiding somewhere on the remote location of the coast of Massachusetts that was once a Civil War-era fortress and lends the film its title. 

Teddy is a World War II veteran who was present at the liberation of Dachau, where he witnessed atrocities that continue to haunt him, although not as much as his wife's tragic death during an arsonist-set fire.

His investigation -- during a major hurricane that batters the island while a major migraine batters him and triggers all sorts of unpleasant dreams and memories -- uncovers what seems to be a Cold War-era government conspiracy.

But is it possible that Teddy's mind is playing tricks on him, and that things here are far from what they seem because of his own agenda?  Is he hallucinating because of the medication they have so generously provided him with? Is this perhaps a nightmare that he just cannot wake from?

The screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis, based on the 2003 novel by Dennis Lehane, starts out as a standard-issue police procedural.  But then it segues into something else, something best left unexplained.

In what was the fourth collaboration between the world-class director and DiCaprio, Scorsese takes a conventional thriller and sees how far he can push the generic envelope while applying his idiosyncratic spin.

All Scorsese does is grab us by the lapels from the get-go, keep several balls in the air from first scene to last, and layer his mesmerizing film so completely that we're on guard and on edge throughout.  It's thrilling to be in the hands of a master, and that's just what he is.

The result is an occasionally overwrought but consistently engrossing tale of paranoiac horror, with Scorsese controlling the tone, juggling the riddle-riddled narrative, and tightening the screws with characteristic command, using the mental hospital as a powerful character in its own right.

Some viewers may find “Shutter Island’s" ultimate twist problematic, so the director wisely makes the revelation cathartic rather than earth-shaking.  In other words, if you know what's coming, fine.

And that's because it's the ride through the spiral of lies, not the final destination, that's the point here.  Scorsese's sense-of-doom focus remains on character and atmosphere.  And what precedes the Big Reveal/Gotcha is nonetheless thoroughly absorbing, eerily menacing, and intensely spooky.

The exceptional supporting cast, which includes Ben Kingsley, Max Von Sydow, Patricia Clarkson, Michelle Williams, and Jackie Earle Haley, is smoothly efficient in helping to make this not just a populated star turn for DiCaprio -- who is extraordinary and has never been better as he fully realizes his potential in a truly demanding role as the tortured protagonist -- but a strong and cohesive ensemble drama as well.

This is a hauntingly nightmarish and deliciously convoluted thriller.  Play the guessing game if you like and pat yourself on the back if you beat the buzzer.  But that's only a minor element in what is a glorious, spine-tingling funhouse ride.

Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.

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