Martin Scorsese’s new film, Shutter Island, is one of those movies that plays with the audience in ways that make some people feel cheated, while others will be taken over by the sheer ability and craft of the filmmaker. Scorsese definitely pulls all the deceptive tricks he can out of his cinematic toolbox, but it is up to the viewer to decide whether or not he has constructed something meaningful.
This particular trope has been utilized before. One can think of films like The Sixth Sense and Angel Heart as kindred spirits to this film. Scorsese is also paying homage to the detective mysteries of the past here, and Shutter Island echoes the film noir of the '40s and '50s with its dark visuals and tone. Add to that the heft of the music arranged by Robbie Robertson that shatters scenes like a symphonic sledgehammer, and you have a movie designed to make you feel on edge most of the time.
It is 1954 and Leonard DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo play U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule, who have come to Shutter Island off the coast of Massachusetts to investigate the disappearance of violent criminal Rachel Solando. From the very first scene, Scorsese makes us queasy as Daniels experiences seasickness in the ferry bathroom. He looks disgustedly through the porthole at all the water, and we know we’re in for a bumpy ride.
The island facility for the criminally insane is an armed fortress, and guards at the gate inform Daniels and Aule that they must check their firearms. Daniels starts what will become a litany throughout the movie, reminding them “I am a U.S. Marshal,” a sort of “do you know who I am?” routine that seems to continually backfire on an island where the rules don’t necessarily have anything to do with the law back on the mainland.
Here they encounter Dr. Cawley (played with gusto by Ben Kingsley), the administrator who runs the place. He seems generally helpful in the beginning, but as Daniels and Aule try to dig deeper, Cawley blocks their attempts with red tape ranging from the board of directors to the protestations of a senior colleague, the decidedly creepy Dr. Jeremiah Neahring (Max von Sydow).
Through flashbacks we learn that Teddy was part of the army that liberated the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau during World War II. Teddy has deep feelings of failure connected to the event, thinking he arrived too late to help all the people whose bodies were piled up in a final frenzy of killing before the Americans got there. He also sees his deceased wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) in his dreams and in hallucinations.
If all of this is not enough to get you going, a major hurricane has swamped the island, knocking out the power and cutting off the ferry service to the island. Teddy and Chuck are forced to bunk with the orderlies, and during the fierce storm we get to see more of Teddy’s disturbing dreams, especially a particularly horrifying sequence of a Nazi Commandant who tried to commit suicide and failed.
By the time we get to the second act, after the storm and Teddy’s descent into the proverbial hell of the facility, Scorsese still has some cinematic tricks up his sleeve. Daniels and Aule discover a lighthouse on the coast where it is rumored that illegal psychological experimentation is being done by Cawley and his colleagues. The lighthouse is separated from the island by a craggy and dangerous rocky cliff, and this is the metaphorical obstacle that must be overcome in order to get to the truth.
My problem with Shutter Island is that Scorsese plays around with the truth. A master of film technique and an advocate of film preservation, we immediately accept that his work will be top-notch before we even sit down in the theater. What happens in this film is that Scorsese sets us up for what he believes is dramatic irony in the conclusion of the film, but it seems more to me like irony of situation, where we get less than expected and yet Scorsese believes we should be satisfied.
DiCaprio does an amazing job as Daniels and should be nominated for Best Actor. This is his strongest and darkest role to date, and the actor has to be credited for taking a decidedly different and unglamorous route. After his success in Titanic, DiCaprio could have easily made the mistake other actors have and taken “star” parts for the money in less than challenging films, but DiCaprio is true to his craft and is willing to take risks and difficult parts that no doubt many actors would not.
The rest of the cast (particularly Kingsley and Williams) does an excellent job, and the creepy island facility is wonderfully realized. Scorsese uses everything at his disposal to shrink the real world, sinking the audience into the morass of the island and trapping us there along with Daniels and Aule. It is this claustrophobic element that probably works best for Scorsese here, but no matter how hard he has done all the right things, there is something missing that is pronounced and makes the experience less satisfying than it should have been.
The denouement is right out of Hitchcock’s Psycho, where everything is sort of explained in order for the audience to understand all that has come before. If you’re anything like me, you get annoyed with this kind of psycho-babble that is an attempt to justify a filmmaker’s showmanship at the sake of the audience’s trust. I went in so wanting to like this film and, while there is much to admire, it leaves a conspicuous aftertaste that is hard to rinse away.