Shutter Island, based on the 2003 mind-bending page-turner by Dennis Lehane, could be called a standard piece of genre filmmaking, rife with misdirection, plot twists, and clichéd dialogue. But because Martin Scorsese directed it, and it stars his favorite new muse Leonardo DiCaprio, it will almost certainly be held against his last work, the fantastic The Departed. Well, it’s not The Departed, which sailed along its plot like a figure skater, jumping and twisting and turning, all with the brightest smile on its face. No, it’s more like an ice dancer, performing a predetermined routine with lots of footwork but nothing that you can grab onto and say that it deserves to win gold. Flawless technique, but very little in the way of artistry. But in the end, like the ice dancer, it is mesmerizing to watch and even quite fun at times, despite rarely knowing exactly where it’s going to go next.
DiCaprio, plays U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels, who, along with his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), has been called in to find a missing patient who seemingly escaped from an asylum for the criminally insane, built out of a Civil-War era fort, off the coast of Massachusetts. The film begins on a ferry, surrounded by dense fog, and we’re not sure if Teddy, who is puking from seasickness and sporting a small bandaid on his head, is going to find the missing woman or a forty-foot tall gorilla. He and Chuck trade clichéd smalltalk until the island is first shown and loud, Hitchcock-esque, borderline obnoxious cello strumming pierces the silence. The music, composed by long time Scorsese veteran Robbie Robertson could be just fun nostalgia, an homage to older thrillers of the film noir era, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s obtrusive and almost comical. Of course, music alone does not a movie make.
When Teddy and Chuck arrive on the Island, we already know something is amiss. Why call in two U.S. Marshalls for an escaped crazy on an island, no less? When her disappearance is explained by the head psychiatrist at the facility, Dr. Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley) as impossible–"It’s as if she evaporated straight through the walls"–even more questions arise. Of course, this is what Scorsese would want us to think as the film goes on. He intends to heighten the tension and suspense until it is at it’s breaking point, with the audience demanding answers, but that really doesn’t go as smoothly as he’d like.
While revealing too much more of the plot would spoil the movie, besides the main plot, we find that Teddy is still suffering traumatic memories from the liberation of Dachau, and what’s even worse is that his wife died in an apparent apartment fire. And guess what? The arsonist responsible may be right there on Shutter Island. So revenge is Teddy’s motive. Or is it? He is also worried that the creepy Dr. Cawley might be a post Word-War II Mengele, conducting experiments on the inmates, and after what Teddy saw at Dachau, he can’t allow that. Of course, he still wants to find that missing patient, too…
So it is with these confused motivations, along with multiple flashbacks and hallucinations of Teddy’s wife, played by Michelle Williams, as well as flashbacks to the liberation of Dachau, that we proceed through this ominous movie. The plot is so thick with differing and sometimes contrary ideas that the suspense gets lost in the shuffle. The audience is too confused to follow everything or, in many other cases, the audience knows that something is coming and is a little too busy thinking up theories to really pay attention to anything. Sure, the "twist" ending is successful and even done well, save for a little exposition that is used to beat you over the head, but when it comes, it’s less surprising than relieving that the whole thing is over.
Shutter Island is one of those movies that can only be successfully analyzed upon a second viewing, because much of the information that comes to light at the end can answer some of the more confusing questions in the beginning. However, that said, a good movie should be good upon the first viewing as well. Shutter Island was good, but it lacked the suspense that a director more suited to this kind of film would give. In a strange way, Scorsese aspires to be an M. Night Shyamalan. However, the movie is still well-paced, masterfully directed, and very watchable, especially for the performances of DiCaprio, Kingsley, and smaller players like Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Emily Mortimer, and Max Von Sydow. It deserves at least one viewing, but perhaps is better suited for the DVD player, if only to be able to turn down the volume on the cellos.
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, Ben Kingsley, Max Von Sydow, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Runtime: 138 mins.