Insane thriller delivers

By David Orlikoff

“Who is 67?” asks Leonardo DiCaprio as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels. He believes that number refers to a secret inmate held at the maximum security mental hospital for the criminally insane on the titular “Shutter Island.” But it could also refer to director, Martin Scorsese, who turned 67 last year.

DiCaprio has worked with Scorsese for the past 10 years and played a similar character in “The Departed,” for which Scorsese won his Best Director Oscar in 2006. And DiCaprio is with him now, in this silly, if entertaining, psychological-horror, action-thriller genre piece dishing out hallucinations as if they were Monopoly money. But Scorsese has had a long career—almost 40 years—and more than his fair share of serious films. Like the Coens directing the light-hearted black comedy “Burn After Reading” after their Oscar-winning opus “No Country for Old Men,” Scorsese has earned the right to have a little fun.

“Shutter Island” is serious in tone, but that’s about it. Everything is over the top, from the Boston accents to the weather with a keen sense for drama. Technically, the film is working on all cylinders: sporting crisp camerawork, excellent acting, gorgeous saturated colors and intricate, if convenient, sets.

One scene that likely will soon find its way into student film analysis has Daniels questioning an insane inmate in the maximum security cell block C. Dramatic rusted iron bars run both ways along the gothic alcove of the prisoner’s cell. But when the conversation shifts to the lunacy of the outside world with its TVs and H-bombs, the camera inverts, showing Daniels’ mug pressed up against the metal, his hands clasped tight to the bars.

The film is incredibly audience-aware; it wants to hold our hands and take us places. In this and other regards, “Shutter Island” bears remarkable similarity to contemporary video games. The World War II theme and hints at calamitous global impact are present in seemingly half the non-sports titles released annually. Many games and films are set in enclosed spaces, but an increasing number, like the “Fallout” and “BioShock” franchises, are relying on ’50s aesthetics to add richness. And the psychological horror elements complete with waking hallucinations bring to mind titles such as “F.E.A.R.” and “Condemned: Criminal Origins.”

But more interesting than these thematic similarities is that “Shutter Island” is structured like a video game. In the beginning we are told that Daniels, the obvious protagonist, is very special. In a place with a hundred nameless prison guards and at least as many uniformed orderlies, he is a fabled federal marshal and a legendary one at that. He begins investigating a mystery that quickly becomes more than it seems. The film never rests too long on suspense, but rushes forward. And just as a game must always present players with goals, the next step and motivation for Daniels is always crystal clear. He begins taking orders or missions from just about anyone as he learns the lay of the land. Then as he grows sure of himself, he ventures out on his own, leading to the final encounter. The biggest difference between “Shutter

Island” and a video game isn’t that it lacks interactivity, it’s that Daniels is often an object of the camera. Even games played in the third person offer a fixed perspective and continuity. But with all the other elements, sitting in the theater does seem a bit like playing Daniels.

Maybe that’s why even though the ending is certainly predictable and consistent with the genre, it’s still effective. Scorsese has found a new way to bond the audience to his central character, by borrowing elements from another medium.

“Shutter Island” is by no means Scorsese’s best film, and it doesn’t need to be. It’s a lot of fun and effective within its self-imposed limitations.