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Film review: 'Shutter Island' is moody, disturbing

Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo, left) and Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, right) are two detectives sent from the mainland to investigate a mysterious disappearance on an island prison for the criminally insane in the thriller "Shutter Island."
Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo, left) and Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, right) are two detectives sent from the mainland to investigate a mysterious disappearance on an island prison for the criminally insane in the thriller "Shutter Island."
Andrew Cooper SMPS

SHUTTER ISLAND — ★★★ — Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley; rated R (violence, profanity, gore, drugs, vulgarity, brief nudity, slurs); in general release

Atmosphere is everything in "Shutter Island," director Martin Scorsese's moody and occasionally disturbing adaptation of the best-selling Dennis Lehane novel.

And that creepy atmosphere isn't conveyed just by the subdued look and feel of this mystery-thriller. Wily veteran Scorsese also uses sound and lighting effects to lull viewers into a false sense of security, only to upset and unhinge them with subsequent action.

The film isn't without its share of flaws, though. There are flat sections, especially in the middle, and the tricky, even convoluted plotting may baffle a few.

But overall, it's mostly effective version of a work that almost seemed unadaptable on the surface.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Teddy Daniels, a U.S. marshal who's been sent to investigate the mysterious goings-on at Ashecliffe, a mental hospital located on an isolated island off Boston Harbor.

Accompanied by a new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), Teddy is looking into the disappearance of a patient. Unfortunately, he's finding more questions than answers.

The facility's chief psychiatrist, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), is no help either. And with storms making travel off the island impossible, Teddy begins feeling trapped — as if he's deliberately being misled.

The film is filled with nightmarish imagery such as Teddy's flashbacks to his experiences as a soldier during World War II, as well as his memories of his late wife (Michelle Williams).

But the most effective moments come when Teddy finally gets into Ward C, which houses the facility's most dangerous and most violent patients.

DiCaprio is working with Scorsese for the fourth time (their earlier collaborations were on "Gangs of New York," "The Aviator" and the Oscar-winning "The Departed"). Despite his unconvincing New England accent, he's believable as the confused and frustrated lawman.

And he's part of a very solid cast. Kingsley is perfect as the apparent villain of the piece, as is the always watchable Max von Sydow, who plays a fellow psychiatrist.

You do wish that Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis found a better use for character actors Patricia Clarkson and Ted Levine, however. Their characters seem to exist only to move the plot along — largely through expository dialogue.

"Shutter Island" is rated R and features strong, disturbing violent content and imagery (gunplay and shootings, strangulation and choking, a beating, vehicular and fiery mayhem, and violence against women and children, mostly implied), strong sexual language (profanity, vulgar slang terms and other frank sexual talk), gory and bloody imagery, drug content and references (painkillers, narcotics, sedatives, various pharmaceuticals and hypodermic needles), brief nudity (full male nudity, as well as glimpses of nude statues), and derogatory language and slurs (some based on race). Running time: 138 minutes.

e-mail: jeff@desnews.com