There are so many mysteries on the island, it feels like you’re never going to get any answers. Is there a way off the island? Can the others on the island be trusted? And are dead people really speaking to the living? Just when the questions make your head start to spin, you remember that Leonardo DiCaprio wasn’t on a plane that crashed and you’re not watching Lost, you’re watching Shutter Island.
And fortunately, by the conclusion of Shutter Island, you get all the answers you need. (Whether the same is true for Lost remains to be seen.)
Martin Scorsese’s latest film, originally slated for release last October, was delayed just weeks before it was to open because the studio wanted it to have ”every possible chance to succeed both creatively and financially.” If Scorsese needed more time in the editing room, it was time well spent. The film works – but just barely – and it’s only the last 20 minutes that redeem what is an increasingly frustrating build-up. Fortunately the pay-off makes it all worthwhile.
Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone), Shutter Island is the site of a mental hospital for the criminally insane — an Alcatraz-like prison off the coast of Massachusetts. When a patient goes missing, Federal Marshals Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are sent to investigate. Emerging from the fog onto the island like gumshoe heroes, the two are met by the island’s creepy doctors, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and the German Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), the latter serving as a reminder of Teddy’s time fighting the Nazis. Nothing is as it appears on the island, and before long finding answers is just as important as surviving.
From the start, it’s clear Scorsese is matching the film’s style to the content. He’s too accomplished a director to allow all the little errors, odd editing, and quick cuts to be sloppy work. So if it must mean something, what is it? Interestingly, only 15 minutes into Shutter Island, a film from 1997 sprung to mind for having a similar feel to it. Naming the film would be a spoiler.
However, it doesn’t give anything away to say that Scorsese is channeling Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis is taking a page from M. Night Shyamalan (you know, one of the good early ones). As in a Hitchcock masterpiece, the cards are slowly laid down on the table to ultimately produce a winning hand. Also, like Hitchcock’s skillful eye, each camera shot is so carefully constructed that once you realize there’s something larger at play, you’re tempted to analyze what Scorsese is trying to accomplish in each frame.
On the other hand, like Shyamalan, it’s clear there’s going to be a twist at the end. From weird dream sequences to memories of concentration camps, the whole tenor of the film begs a solution outside the norm. Visions of dead people and flashbacks more vivid than reality ensure that the truth is more strongly rooted in the past than the present.
Having worked together on The Departed, The Aviator and Gangs of New York, it’s clear that Scorsese and DiCaprio have a partnership that allows the other to shine. As the increasingly unnerved Teddy, DiCaprio brings the audience down the dark hole with him. It’s a slow descent into the mad world of the prison, and as Teddy trades his suit for the orderly garbs, DiCaprio ensures he also sheds his bravado and confidence.
Michelle Williams lays the Boston accent on thick as Teddy’s departed wife while giving a performance that seamlessly transforms during the film. Opposite DiCaprio for much longer as his partner, Ruffalo, strong but never overshadowing, plays the sidekick like someone who is never meant to make it to the end of the movie. He’s affable, but not someone to cry over.
It’s Kingsley and von Sydow, however, who really ramp up the suspense. As doctors more frightening than their insane charges, they provide a level of menace more convincing than the rain-soaked sets. Being under their control is like having Norman Bates as a babysitter or getting a Chucky doll for Christmas.
Shutter Island is one of those films that almost demands a second viewing once you have the secret decoder ring. To make it through the first time, you just have to be a man of faith to trust that these men of science know what they’re doing — one more way it’s like Lost.