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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Island’ makes audiences shudder

Published: February 26, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

Just hearing the names Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio in the same sentence is a giveaway that whatever movie it’s referring to is a force to be reckoned with. And “Shutter Island,” the newest collaboration from this Hollywood director-actor power duo does not disappoint.

DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. marshal sent to Shutter Island, a mental institution for the criminally insane to investigate the disappearance of one of its patients/prisoners. As Teddy struggles to keep his wits about himself on an island where the inmates, along with the doctors and nurses themselves, possess an element of instability, he is also plagued by the mental trauma wreaked by witnessing the horror of Nazi concentration camps as an American soldier and losing his wife in an apartment fire.

It is eventually revealed that Teddy requested to come to the island based on his suspicion that a government conspiracy was afoot, realizing possibly too late that it is a set-up, forcing him to question everything he knows, even the loyalties and true identity of his new partner, Chuck Aule, played by Mark Ruffalo.

Based on a novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane, Scorsese incorporates all the basic elements of a thriller to bring Lehane’s original story to the silver screen: suspenseful music, the backdrop of a hurricane and characters who can make your skin crawl with only a lingering gaze.

However, he does so without it being formulaic. Though at times distracting, the choppy instrumental music used to build the tension of a scene adds a discordant feel to the movie, but in a way that strengthens it as a psychological thriller where nothing is as it seems.

However, what really distinguishes this film from being simply a tired re-hashing of the thriller genre is the A-list cast who slip so seamlessly into their roles that the line between actor and character is blurred. Leonardo DiCaprio adeptly conveys the self-doubt and mental anguish of a man trying to maintain his own sanity in a world where insanity is normal.

Ben Kingsley co-stars as Dr. Cawley, the head of the institution and, as Teddy suspects, the puppet master of a greater devious scheme possibly involving the government. Cawley is a culturally refined man, but at the same time, one who seems capable of disturbing cruelties, a character that society has grappled with for centuries. (Look at the personas of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.)

With his upper-crust accent, Kingsley’s character acts as a perfect counterpart to DiCaprio’s, whose mind seems to be slowly unraveling. Cawley, on the other hand, is one who witnesses the extremes of insanity each day in his patients and is still able to remain creepily undisturbed by any of it.

Instead of just relying on over-the-top gore, Scorsese makes this a thriller of the mind, using his actors to spook the audience with their intonations or expressions as much as he uses the music or setting to create an air of suspicion and creepiness. All of these elements work together to create a curtain of mystery that Scorcese both lifts and pulls over the audience’s eyes.