The phrase "the new film by Martin Scorsese, starring Leonardo DiCaprio" isn't exactly a hard sell for most movie fans. Scorsese, no matter the genre he's working in, simply demands film fans seek out his latest movie. And DiCaprio has proven himself one of the best actors in the business, not to mention the fact he's arguably given his best performances while working under the direction of the legendary Scorsese.
Their latest effort — their fourth time working together — is the bombastic Shutter Island, based on the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name, the author whose books were the basis for two very successful adaptations, Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone. But where those were deadly serious tales of crime and redemption, Shutter Island is more of a psychological mystery/thriller.
Does it succeed in being what that type of movie should be? Yes, it does. It delivers the types of thrills and "just what the hell is going on?" moments that you'd expect. Arguably it doesn't really matter how you get those results, just that you get there enough times that it feels satisfying. But there are also some problems that stop the movie from rising anywhere close to the top of Scorsese's resume.
The film follows Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), a police detective who, along with his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), heads to the mysterious and isolated Shutter Island on which is located a mental hospital that harbours "only the most dangerous, damaged patients." His reason? To investigate the mysterious disappearance of a female inmate who, in true Shawshank Redemption style, was in her cell at lights out and disappeared shortly thereafter. "It's as if she evaporated, straight through the walls," as Ben Kingsley's Dr. Cawley creepily states.
That's about as far as you'll want to read with regard to the plot, because any further delving into it would only ruin it for you if you haven't headed out to see it yet. Needless to say things get very strange and nothing is as it first seems. However, one of the biggest problems with Shutter Island is the way it sets everything up as so mysterious about what truly is going on and yet the so-called "twist" is so easy to see coming it's almost as if Scorsese meant for you to guess it (although I can't really see why he'd want such a thing).
A general issue with the movie is that it feels all over the place. The editing, by longtime Scorsese collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker, seems jumpy, overly frantic, and just… off for this type of movie. Perhaps it's supposed to mirror the craziness of the place where the investigation is taking place, or specifically the residents of the hospital, but for this viewer it was just distracting, really taking me out of the movie.
Having mentioned those problems, which are perhaps non-issues for the average movie goer, probably the single biggest issue is the ending. Not to give anything away but it's like everything was being bottled up and up and up throughout the first two hours and it just comes flooding out in one of the longest explanation scenes I've seen in a long time. It reminded me of the unnecessary explanation at the denouement of Alfred Hitchcock's classic Psycho (the only weakness of an otherwise phenomenal chiller).
Problems aside, however, you'll probably be glad to know there's much to like, and even love, about Shutter Island. First, and this will come as no surprise, the performances are all excellent, right across the board. DiCaprio continues to prove he is one of the best actors working today; Ruffalo is an underrated and underused actor finally getting his due in Hollywood and is great here; Michelle Williams as DiCaprio's wife (who appears only in flashback and dream sequences) almost steals the show; and veterans like Kingsley and Max von Sydow, as a helpful and a sinister doctor, respectively, are predictably brilliant.
The film looks absolutely gorgeous, thanks to the talents of cinematographer Robert Richardson, who has worked on such films as JFK, Scorsese's The Aviator, and more recently Inglourious Basterds. Almost any frame of the movie you could take and hang on the wall. The score is menacing with a foreboding feel of terrible danger (even if it's a bit over-the-top and distracting sometimes), and the general level of creepiness that Scorsese manages to build is often almost unbearable.
Shutter Island is most definitely not Scorsese's finest film, not even close actually. It's a film that feels a bit all over the place, with stylish and often jaw-dropping dream sequences that are overdone and (for the most part) unnecessary. But a lot of the smaller problems (and there are a lot of them) could have been completely forgiven if it wasn't so reliant on everything being spoon-fed to the audience in one huge explanation sequence at the end (of which a lot of the details were easy to see coming anyhow).
The film nonetheless begs to be seen twice (or more), as that way you can get a second look at anything and everything now that you know all the important details about what's going on. A disappointment but an enjoyable, if rather ridiculous, thriller when all is said and done.