Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams
Four years after finally getting the award hardware he’s richly deserved for, oh, the last 30 years or so, Martin Scorsese is back with his follow-up feature to The Departed. Teaming up once again with Leonardo DiCaprio, he's created a tight psychological thriller that seems great while you're watching it, but less so the more you reflect on it afterwards.
There is no respite from darkness in Shutter Island as it plunges us immediately into the creepy, intense atmosphere of its eponymous locale. Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) already has a bad feeling about the place as it emerges from the fog and that feeling isn’t going to let up any time soon. The island houses a facility for the criminally insane and Teddy and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) have been sent to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), one of the inmates. By all appearances, Rachel has simply vanished, escaping from her locked cell with its barred window and making her way across the island’s rocky terrain without any shoes. There’s no trace of her except for a note she left behind, inquiring as to the identity of Patient 67.
Teddy is constantly at odds with the staff, particularly Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), whom he believes is actively trying to impede the investigation, and Dr. Naehring (Max von Syddow), whose accent brings back Teddy’s memories of liberating Dachau and the horrors he encountered there. He’s increasingly convinced that, like the Nazis, this particular facility is conducting experiments on people and he’s certain that these experiments are taking place inside the lighthouse at the edge of the island. I’m reluctant to say more about the plot, though having read the book I can state that even if you know the twist, it’s still pretty effective the way Scorsese handles it. The film ends on a more ambiguous note than the book, making Teddy less passive and leaving you to wonder a bit more about his mental state.
Much of the film depends on being able to successfully articulate the mental fragility of its protagonist. Teddy is a deeply troubled character and from the first moments we’re given a sense of just how on edge he is. Teddy’s memories/nightmares/hallucinations about his late wife (Michelle Williams) play a prominent role in the story, growing more intense the further along the narrative gets. At first these scenes and the story’s current day scenes are separate and apart, distinct from each other, but as things progress Teddy’s inner life begins to intrude more and more on his current reality until it comes to the point where he’s talking to his wife and one of the patient/prisoners at the same time. The mixture of tones and colour pallets – the Shutter Island scenes tend to be very dark, shadowy, grim looking; the memories/hallucinations tend to be brighter and more colourful – gives the film an appropriately unbalanced feel that forces you to question everything. We never know for certain how much of what we’re seeing is “real” and how much is part of an elaborate game of the mind.
Scorsese shoots the film in a very intimate way, using sets that seem narrow and closed in to create a feeling of claustrophobia that unsettles us and aligns us more firmly with Teddy. As Teddy, DiCaprio renders a good performance that begins with barely repressed anger and fear that slowly starts to bubble to the surface until finally exploding in the film’s final act. He manages to skirt the line, letting you see just enough beneath the surface that the turnaround at the end doesn’t come as a complete shock, without tipping his hand and making it really obvious. A lot of skill went into making this film both in front of and behind the camera and yet, for all that, Shutter Island ultimately left me a bit cold. I found it engrossing as I was watching it but it didn’t leave a very lasting impression on me. It’s a good movie, but not a great one.