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Martin Scorsese in genre mode with riveting paranoid thriller 'Shutter Island'

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Posted: Saturday, February 27, 2010 12:00 am

Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" was supposed to open during the fall of last year, but in a surprising and controversial move, the studio pushed it back to February, saying simply that they thought it would bolster the film's chances at year-end awards and big box office numbers.

I don't really get this, since if the film had been released last year it would have almost certainly been in contention for some Oscars next week (including Best Picture and, I'm confident, Best Director).

Now, though, it will be a miracle if it's remembered come next awards season.

"Shutter Island"

**** (out of four)
2010, Martin Scorsese, U.S., R

As for financial concerns, the film is good enough (it would have ranked No. 4 on my 2009 top 10 list) and "mainstream" enough to have competed amidst even the most popular of last fall's offering, so I don't know what they were fretting about.

But I guess the more important point is, it's here now, and it was worth the wait.

Scorsese is noted as a director of gangster pictures, but beyond that niche, he's not really a "genre filmmaker," usually preferring to tackle his own passion projects rather than experiment with genre pieces on any kind of regular basis.

Yet his latest, the penetrating psychological thriller "Shutter Island," is a genre exercise through and through, with Scorsese doing his best to pay proper homage to the paranoid film noirs of the 1940s and '50s while at the same time toying with the format to suit his own artistic impulses. (He reportedly held cast and crew screenings of films like "Out of the Past" and "Vertigo" prior to production, and the classical influence is clear.)

The result is an old-school mystery tinged with the director's trademark themes of violence, masculinity, cultural identity and alienation, and further evidence that in the twilight of his career, Scorsese is consistently churning out his best work since the early '80s.

"Shutter Island" is based on the best-selling novel by Dennis Lehane ("Mystic River," "Gone Baby Gone"), an otherwise impressive author who, in this instance, got his hands on a great idea but clearly had no idea what to do with it.

He filled his book with obvious, ham-fisted allusions to the story's admittedly clever plot twists, and obviously shaped his entire novel around the ending without lending real weight to anything that came before.

Thankfully Scorsese picks up the pieces, stripping the story of self-conscious foreshadowing and putting in its place a fantastic sense of oppressive paranoia. And when the surprises come, they're as startling to the viewer as they are to the increasingly desperate characters.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshal and decorated war vet who, as the film opens, is en route with his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), to Shutter Island. It houses a federal penitentiary for the criminally insane, and Daniels has been dispatched to investigate the confounding disappearance of a dangerous murderess who seems to have "evaporated through the walls."

If that's not weird enough, there's also the matter of the troubling rumors surrounding the island, which may or may not be a government testing ground for radical medical experiments.

Things get still more complex as it's revealed that Daniels, whose wife was murdered years before by a crazed arsonist named Andrew Laeddis, may have ulterior motives for volunteering his services.

It's difficult to say more without revealing too much about the story, but let it be said that DiCaprio had a tremendously difficult role to work with here, and he handles it like a seasoned pro.

The movie is full of great supporting performances and cameos (Ben Kingsley is instantly engaging as the prison's chief psychologist, but Ted Levine's scorching single-scene turn as the brutal warden may be my favorite), but the action is so centered on DiCaprio that the film ultimately sinks or swims on the basis of his performance.

And a hell of a performance it is — nicely nuanced, but often charged with a kind of rehearsed cockiness that harkens back to the more steady, stoic acting styles seen in the old film noirs.

DiCaprio has made quite a career for himself as Scorsese's new muse, and the duo make a perfect match. (I can't wait for their remakes of Michael Haneke's "Cache (Hidden)" and Akira Kurosawa's "High and Low," not to mention "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.")

"Shutter Island" is one of their best collaborations to date, full of striking set pieces — Daniels' foreboding arrival at the gates of Shutter Island, the flashback to the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, numerous haunting dream sequences and hallucinations, and too many others to list here — and effective performances that will linger in your mind long after the credits have rolled.

I would have preferred to be cheering for it on Oscar night, but delayed release or not, "Shutter Island" is just one more example of why Scorsese is quite possibly cinema's most accomplished master.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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