Dimensions of the deranged

2010-03-15 00:00

SANITY is hard to measure at the best of times. Take away normal frames of reference and introduce a pervasive mood of menace, in which friend and foe become confused, then madness becomes the order of the day.

This is the world of Shutter Island, an island off the coast of Boston, that is home to a maximum-security mental institution for the criminally insane. Set in the mid-50s, treatment for the insane is less than sophistica­ted, and experimentation with psychotropic drugs and lobotomies is fashionable. But underlying this treatment is always the question of whether the intention is to “cure” patients, or simply to tame them.

It is into this deeply disturbing environment that two U.S. marshals enter, searching for a missing woman patient. Leonardo DiCaprio is marshal Teddy Daniels, a war veteran who suffers from post-traumatic flashbacks from having been part of the vanguard of troops that liberated the Nazi concentration camps. His grip on reality seldom appears firm, causing yet another dimension of uncertainty in an already uncertain place.

His partner is Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), and together they get sucked into an increasingly scary vortex of fear, hallucination and betrayal.

Ben Kingsley plays the psychiatrist at the centre of the web of intrigue, his role alternately veering from a benign, well-meaning, new-school doctor to an evil Dr Mengele character, who has brought the worst of Nazi science and Stalinist mind control to the world of post-war America.

These sombre layers of history, overlaying the simple search for a missing woman, add to the resonance that an already taut thril­ler manages to strike.

Much has been written recently about whether director Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Cape Fear) has lost his edge over the past couple of years. Shutter Island proves he can still hold an audience in the palm of his hand, with a well-crafted story. But there were some overly theatrical moments that felt oddly stylised in the swirl of intrigue. And once the final twist plays itself out, there’s a feeling of having been cheaply manipulated at the outset, in a way that steers the mind in a direction the story doesn’t actually point to. It was a cheat that I could have done without.

The claustrophobic island, with its population of social and psychiatric casualties, is challenging enough to investigators and audience alike without indulgent mannerisms distracting from the surge of an otherwise powerful, thought-provoking thriller.

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