Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese takes us back to the paranoid Cold War era in Shutter Island, based on the best-seller by Mystic River’s Dennis Lehane. (Please be advised that this review may contain some spoilers.) This psychological thriller, set in Massachusetts in 1954, follows U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) as they venture to Shutter Island, home of the fortress-like mental institution Ashecliffe Hospital, to investigate the inexplicable disappearance of a patient named Rachel Solondo. To make matters worse, a hurricane has trapped the two cops on this godforsaken rock for the time being.
As they try to determine how Rachel escaped and her current whereabouts, Teddy and Chuck are stonewalled by the warden (Ted Levine) and the hospital’s urbane but shifty administrator, Dr. Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley), who is championing a (then) revolutionary new method for treating the criminally insane. The deeper Teddy digs into the mystery of Rachel’s disappearance and what is really going on at Ashecliffe, the more he himself grows disturbed. Teddy becomes haunted by memories of his late wife (Michelle Williams) and of the atrocities he witnessed as a G.I. during World War II. Has Teddy been exposed to something sinister on Shutter Island that’s causing this breakdown, or has Ashecliffe simply unleashed demons that were already within him?
I started reading Lehane’s novel a few months ago, but stopped about a quarter of the way through for two reasons. First, I guess I didn’t really want to spoil the movie for myself after all, and, secondly, I had a hunch that I’d figured out where the story was going and what its big twist was going to be. After watching the movie — and then reading the end of the novel — it turns out my hunch was right on target. It’s tough to find a thriller truly suspenseful when you’ve figured out its big twist within the first act (or from just watching the trailers). Anyone who has seen enough psychological thrillers, or for that matter almost any given episode of The Twilight Zone, will be able to figure out Shutter Island just as easily. But that doesn’t mean you still won’t be entertained.
Rather than being able to enjoy Shutter Island as a psychodrama as it was meant to be, I instead appreciated its style, atmosphere, production values, direction and the lead performance by Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s a B-movie made by A-listers, with Scorsese fashioning his most Hollywood movie since Cape Fear (and maybe even more so than that film). Shutter Island is a great filmmaking exercise for Scorsese to make the type of pulpy, overwrought genre B-movies he grew up watching. It plays like an old Hammer horror film (Vincent Price could have played either the Kingsley or von Sydow roles back in the day), and at other times like the German Expressionist classics (such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) that reportedly influenced Scorsese in making this film. It’s also an homage to Shock Corridor, a film made by one of his idols, Sam Fuller. While it’s fun to see Scorsese having fun, it’s also a lot of effort spent on a shell game where you know which shell the nut is hidden under the entire time.
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DiCaprio just gets better with each film, especially the ones he makes with Scorsese. As they did in The Aviator and The Departed, Scorsese and DiCaprio have created another protagonist perpetually on the verge of losing his grip as they intensify the pressure on his psyche until the stress finally causes a climactic rupture. There are layers to DiCaprio’s performance that should be more evident upon subsequent viewings, but he is, along with Christian Bale, one of the few young actors who can bring depth, complexity and subtlety to obsessed, often unhinged characters.
The rest of the cast is solid. Ruffalo is tasked with perhaps the most challenging role in the film, while the reading of Kingsley’s character is entirely dependent on the reliability of the protagonist’s questionable perspective. I don’t want to say more about their roles than that, suffice to say their performances become increasingly critical as the narrative draws to a close. Michelle Williams’ role is a small but pivotal one. Jackie Earle Haley has one gripping scene with DiCaprio that further showcases why he’s become such an in-demand (and deservedly celebrated) supporting actor these last few years. It’s also nice to see Max von Sydow appear in a Scorsese film, albeit in a rather one-note role. Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson and Elias Koteas also have small but showy roles.
From the opening shot, Scorsese creates an atmosphere of gloom and uncertainty that permeates the entire film. He transports us to a frightening, alien world populated by untrustworthy and dangerous people. You’ll feel like you’re really inside a 1950s asylum in Shutter Island, and that sense of authenticity and ominousness – thanks to Lehane’s research as well as the cinematography, production design, costumes, score and sound design – keeps us invested in the protagonist and his plight even when the film bogs down about midway through.
Shutter Island is a well-acted, handsomely made, old-fashioned haunted house movie that’s nevertheless marred by the same elements — plot holes, red herrings, familiar genre tropes and an overall reliance on heavy-handed trickery — that have undone so many other thrillers from lesser filmmakers. Scorsese’s virtuoso craftsmanship here may be both the best and ironically the worst thing about Shutter Island, but he has unquestionably made it a far more intriguing incarceration than it otherwise could have been. A mixed bag from Martin Scorsese is still better than most other filmmakers’ best efforts.