There are some films that are just too clever for their own good. Such is the case with Shutter Island, which had me entranced through its first two-thirds before imploding upon itself and vomiting in the last third. There are so very many things to like about this film, but the end just leaves you distant, maybe even frustrated with its all-too-brainy stab at the macabre. When you have a filmmaker as heralded as Scorsese, you tend to grade on a curve, and Shutter Island seems to miss the mark at some points.
The film follows US Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), who travels with his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to Shutter Island. Shutter Island is a haggard mass of sharp rocks and deadly secrets–it is the epitome of a gothic setting. On the island, an old Civil War fort has been transformed into a mental hospital for the criminally insane, and when a child murderer named Rachel (Emily Mortimer) has escaped from that hospital, Teddy and Chuck are brought in to find her.
It seems like there is no way a prisoner can make it out alive, as the wards are surrounded by stiff cliffs and endless ocean. But somehow Rachel has managed to disappear. When Teddy meets the institution’s medical director, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), he is met with passive resistance. Cawley respects his patients, even if most of them have committed terrible acts, and he is very weary of Teddy’s possible philanderings. From the first moment they meet, these two men do not trust each other. For good reason. Their inspection starts off shaky. Rachel’s lead psychologist was granted a vacation and Cawley’s superior, a German Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow; yes, that Max von Sydow) refuses them access to staff files.
Worse yet, the island itself seems to be conspiring against them. A hurricane howls, roofs leak, and the murky circumstances give Teddy terrible migraines. He begins getting dreadfully realistic hallucinations of his dead wife Delores (Michelle Williams), and his dreams are lucid and frightening. He gets flashes of horrific moments he experienced on the battlefield during World War II. Then everything begins to blend together. Seeds of paranoia are planted into Teddy’s brain, and before he knows it, he doesn’t know who he can trust anymore. As he searches harder and harder for Rachel, he travels deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness that is Shutter Island.
And all of this is brilliant. Scorsese, always a master of showcasing character strife, layers the setting with distressing images and ominous sounds to showcase Teddy’s inner torment. The institution felt not unlike the House of Usher, and because of that, the entire film is cast in a dour mood. It wouldn’t be incorrect to call Shutter Island a noir in this way. Very dark in tone and theme. Lead by a deeply troubled, extremely hard-boiled protagonist. Even throwbacks to classic Hitchcock are woven in well. The aspects of obsession used so well in Vertigo seem particularly prevalent here. Scorsese is the king film homage within a film, and Shutter Island does it better than most of his others.
So, why did I sound so sour at the beginning of my review? Because this film drastically falls apart when it reaches its third act. For the most part, it walks its tight rope between horrific dreams and dreary reality quite brilliantly. But the film’s final moments try to wrangle it in and put it on a straight path. Everything in the film, up until those moments, is fighting it. Yet, it seems that Scorsese enjoyed the coy way the film’s resolution plays a trick on us. I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of the twist ending, so I guess I walk in with prejudice. But what Shutter Island attempts seems to go against the entire structure of the story.
But in the end, is the film’s conclusion so reprehensible? After some thought, I don’t think so. I feel Shutter Island is a movie that works much better on a second viewing, when you’re simply viewing the aesthetic and not focusing on such meaningless things as plot points. After all, you do have a tremendous lead performance from DiCaprio, and wonderfully-nuanced supporting work from Kingsley, Mortimer, and von Sydow. You do have some of the best shot work of Robert Richardson’s career. And you have one of the creepiest auras within a movie that I’ve seen in a long time.
This is probably the closest Scorsese will ever get to crafting a functional, effective horror film. In a way, it’s like introspective horror, which deals with the minds of the characters and doesn’t waste its energy on arbitrary action. Shutter Island is legitimately spooky. And now, as I finish typing this review, I realize that I’m not as angry with the film as I thought I was. Actually, I think I quite enjoyed it. You see, things are starting to change already. Now, if there was only something we could do to change that ending, then the experience would be perfect.
Directed by Martin Scorsese