It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world

It’s a detail, a cinematic in-joke invisible to all but film afficionados, but it adds to the ominous atmosphere on Shutter Island: the two head wardens of the mental hospital are played by Ted Levine and John Carroll Lynch – Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb from Silence of the Lambs and Arthur Leigh Allen, the main suspect from David Fincher’s Zodiac. With these two in charge of security at Ashecliff Hospital, you wonder: are the inmates in charge of the asylum, or are the patients even more insane? Even the benevolent doctor, played by Ben Kingsley at his most unctuous, serves to make us more paranoid rather than comforted.

The main attraction in this Scorsesean Gothic horror, though, is Shutter Island itself: the location immediately joins an exclusive list together with Bates Motel, the Overlook Hotel and the abbey in The Name of the Rose, as one of those places that feed the imagination. Anything might be hiding in that old lighthouse, and the carpets of Dr. Cawley’s residence exude a sense of foreboding. The place breathes a diseased past: you get an almost tactile sense that things have happened here, things that shouldn’t be.

Things that, in fact, didn’t happen. The true horror house, as so often, is the human mind, protecting itself as it knows best: by inventing alternative histories that become more real, more believab le, and certainly more necessary than what has really happened.

Scorsese and Lehane’s psychological horror yarn isn’t original, and those who have seen or read similar stories will not be overly surprised by the main twist ten minutes before the end. But it’s been a while since the twist, its lead-up and denouement havve been told with such sensuality. The film is rarely subtle, but damn, if you don’t feel the clammy fog of Shutter Island stick to your skin as you leave the theatre.

Having said that, though, I have one quibble with the film. For the most part it plays fair with what is and what isn’t real. It doesn’t fool the audience in cheap ways and is usually pretty clear with respect to what’s in the protagonist’s mind. Hallucinations aren’t played for a cheap “Huhwha?” effect. There is one big exception to this, though, a scene which logically must be a hallucination, yet it plays more realistically than most other scenes in the film. On one level it helps that it features the always wonderful Patricia Clarkson, who invests the scene with a fevered intensity and conviction; on the other hand, it’s exactly the fact that she’s so believable in her part, her presence to solid, and the moment not a brief flash of unreality, that it takes on a solidity it shouldn’t have – logically, it must be a hallucination, yet it doesn’t have the markers of unreality that the film has established previously. And that’s why the scene keeps niggling at me. It stands out, yet I can’t help feeling that it doesn’t play fair. It’s a cheat – an eminently well-executed cheat, but a cheat nevertheless. And yet, and yet… Perhaps I need to see the film again to figure it out. Just when I thought I was out, Shutter Island pulls me back in. (Thank you, Sil.)

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