It could be argued that many of Martin Scorsese's most famous characters are raving lunatics. Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. Jake La Motta from Raging Bull. Jimmy Conway from Goodfellas. Max Cady from Cape Fear. Basically, anybody played by Robert De Niro. I kept hoping for a De Niro cameo in the prison for the criminally insane that provides the setting for Scorsese's latest movie, but alas, no. I had to make do with other cameos, namely several all-too-short appearances by the amazing cast of character actors Scorsese has assembled to populate the 1950s nightmare world he's created. The story itself is a real potboiler, as well, but the plot is less important than the look of the film and the (often brief) performances Scorsese gets from his cast, not to mention the startling fact that Max Von Sydow is still alive. How old is this guy?
Leonardo DiCaprio is obviously Scorsese's golden boy, rocking a curiously strong Boston accent in the role of Teddy Daniels, a federal marshal called in to investigate a missing patient at the island institution. Mark Ruffalo plays his affable new partner Chuck (thankfully from Portland, OR), and Ben Kingsley plays the clearly-hiding-something head psychiatrist Dr. Cawley. He refuses to give the investigators key information, sits in on all employee interrogations and hangs around with Von Sydow, who plays another psychiatrist -- all highly suspicious behavior, if you ask me. The guards are even less helpful, and Daniels would blow off the case and head for the mainland if not for two little details: One, a hurricane has just rolled in, making sea travel impossible (and island living very, very difficult). And two, Daniels is there with ulterior motives, which are revealed pretty early on; I'd tell you what they are, but they're not really that important, nor particularly easy to understand or explain. What's important is that Daniels and Chuck take advantage of the hurricane to investigate every inch of the ominously picturesque island, from the cemetery to the old fort to the mysteriously guarded lighthouse off the coast. Oh, and Daniels may be going crazy, and is having hallucinations of his dead wife mixed in with his memories of liberating Dachau in World War II. Luckily, he's in the right place to get help!
In addition to DiCaprio, Ruffalo, Kingsley and Von Sydow, the rest of the cast is a bit of a who's who, although most of them have relatively little screen time. Michelle Williams appears throughout the film as Daniels' deceased wife, in hallucination and flashback -- two very different performances that are creepy in very different ways. Emily Mortimer plays a murderously delusional patient who seems fixated on Daniels (and vice versa), and Patricia Clarkson plays an escapee who clues Daniels in on what's going down in this crazy caper. Perpetually frightening Jackie Earle Haley also plays a convict in a scene that would probably have earned him another Best Supporting Actor nod if it weren't only four minutes long. Ted Levine (Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs) makes an appearance as the warden about halfway through the movie, as if to remind us that we haven't met him yet, despite the importance of his job, and to show off his freshly shorn upper lip, and Elias Koteas turns up long enough to show us the ugly scar he sports in the trailers and say a few words before disappearing for good. It would have been great to see more of some of these characters, but on the other hand, DiCaprio is on screen in nearly every shot, so I guess there have to be trade-offs.
The trouble with a non-gangster Scorsese movie is that it's tough to point to things that make it quintessentially Scorsese-esque. (Especially when the soundtrack has no classic rock, only modern classical.) Aside from some really beautifully composed shots and the fact that Scorsese muse Leonardo DiCaprio is in it, any experienced horror director could have been behind the camera on this Dennis Lehane adaptation, although it certainly wouldn't been as beautifully shot, or as informed by Scorsese's encyclopedic film knowledge of old psychological horror movies. And while there are certainly parts of the film that are reminiscent of classics like The Haunting, the film's shock of an ending is actually even more similar to the early films of M. Night Shyamalan, and the Dachau flashbacks feature a ballet of blood and gore worthy of Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. Of course, Scorsese's chicken came long before Shyamalan and Tarantino's eggs, but the man still makes a delicious omelet.
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Check out Martin Scorsese's ten greatest movie scenes.