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On DVD: 'Shutter Island' Works Backwards, But It Works

The promotional campaign for Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" made it resemble a cross between Kubrick's "The Shining" and my least favorite Scorsese movie, his overblown remake of "Cape Fear." (The only good that came out of that mess was a satiric reference to it in a "Simpsons" episode called "Clown Without Pity.")

Though "Shutter Island" contains horrific ingredients and a thriller structure that includes some literal cliffhanging, it's actually a compelling, emotion-charged historical melodrama. Set in 1954, it stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a U.S. Marshal who investigates the escape of a patient from a Massachusetts island asylum dedicated to violent cases. The cast includes Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Max von Sydow, and best of all, Mark Ruffalo, who does perhaps his finest screen acting in a modest, pivotal role. (That's Kingsley, DiCaprio, Scorsese and Ruffalo, above.)

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But the real costar is the U.S. at mid-century. Through DeCaprio's tormented character, Scorsese funnels a nightmarish vision of an America reacting to the horrors as well as the heroism of World War II, the paranoia and real fears of the Cold War, and a slew of chaotic scientific, medical and cultural breakthroughs. None of these historic forces jibe with what critic Pauline Kael used to call the "idiot smile" of the sitcom culture.

"Shutter Island" is far from perfect. Watching it on DVD at home late at night, I fell asleep trying to absorb an undigested lump of faux-exposition. (It's delivered by a woman who drops in for one scene to spell out some threats that seem to confront DiCaprio.)

But even when Scorsese resorts to haunted-house cliches (without transforming them), they make sense once he reveals the plot in full. And the movie urges you to look in a new way at an era that encompassed Dachau, "duck and cover," and returning GIs' dreams of domestic bliss.

After watching "Shutter Island," I remembered what William Maxwell said of Chekhov's story "Ward No. Six": "The reader who has lived through 'Ward No. Six' knows forever after that his own sanity is only provisional."

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