An Asylum Lark On ‘Shutter Island’



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Director Martin Scorsese, standing right, speaks with actors, from left, Ben Kingsley, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo on the set of
Director Martin Scorsese, standing right, speaks with actors, from left, Ben Kingsley, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo on the set of "Shutter Island." (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures)

Martin Scorsese’s newest film, which opens Friday in theaters nationwide, has deep Greater Boston roots. The movie is based on the 2004 novel of same name by local writer Dennis Lehane, and much of the film was shot in Eastern Massachusetts. WBUR’s critic-at-large reviewed the thriller.

The first two-thirds of “Shutter Island” seems to bring out the worst in both director Martin Scorsese, who has a tendency to go over the top, and novelist Dennis Lehane, whose characters can be a little too black and white. But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

The writer and director are really just having a ball setting the stage for the last third of the movie, of which absolutely nothing can be said.

As you probably know from the Olympics promotions, “Shutter Island” is set in a mental institution for the criminally insane during the 1950s (an abandoned asylum in Medfield is the cinematic stand-in) and lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio is a U.S. marshal searching for an escapee — in between nightmares of his wife’s death and the concentration camp he helped liberate during World War II.

But can he trust anyone? Ben Kingsley plays a psychiatrist who looks like a cross between Vladimir Lenin and Ming the Merciless. Max von Sydow’s shrink looks even nuttier. And Leo’s new partner, played by Mark Ruffalo — why does he have so much trouble with his gun and holster?

Trailer: ‘Shutter Island’

Part of the fun, though, is going along for the ride with Scorsese, and guessing at some of the film’s allusions: James Whale’s “The Old Dark House”? “The Island of Dr. Moreau”? “Vertigo”?

Still, I wonder if Lehane’s novel might have been better served by turning down the Gothic notes and working a little harder on some of the underlying themes, which aren’t really clear until the end.

Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick could take popular fiction like “Psycho” and “The Shining,” respectively, and turn the stories into cinematic art. Lehane has compared Scorsese’s movies to lesser and greater Mozart. I might have said Bartok, but let’s not quibble. He’s right, but this film didn’t have to be lesser.

The movie is fun, however — at least for thriller fans. The cast is terrific, though they should have ditched Michelle Williams’s horrible Boston accent. I’ve been skeptical of Scorsese’s late-career attachment to DiCaprio, but he really is turning into a solid actor.

The cinematography makes Rockport look like not such a nice place to visit. Scorsese’s and Robbie Robertson’s choice of music recalls “The Shining,” even if composers György Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki aren’t used to such great effect here.

Scorsese continues to be a director whose virtues compete with and usually overcome his flaws, while Lehane keeps growing as a writer. This is something of a lark for both men, but it’s a lark ascending.

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