Originally published in the 02/21/10 version of The Source. . .
Much like its asylum setting, Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" is a beautifully constructed, exquisitely detailed labyrinth of dark twists, dead ends and buried secrets. It may creak, groan and threaten to topple over, but in the end it succeeds in concealing its mysteries inside a haunting, beautiful structure.
The film is a pastiche of Hitchcockian thriller, film noir and psychological horror that burrows under our skin even when its plot threads don't always quite connect. Adapting a best-selling novel by Dennis Lehane ("Mystic River," "Gone Baby Gone"), Scorsese dips his toes into the horror genre, but don't mistake it for slumming: what seems on the surface to be a standard locked-room mystery is, in reality, a poetic and disturbing look at insanity, guilt and fear.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall from Boston working with new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to find a patient who goes missing on Shutter Island in 1954. The patient, Rachel Solando, was put there after murdering her own children and seems to have disappeared into thin air. That's pretty hard to do, considering that Shutter Island is a heavily fortified mental hospital for the criminally insane, surrounded by ominous bluffs and with electric wire surrounding the campus's creaky, dark buildings.
Teddy and Chuck arrive just as a hurricane is bearing down on the island, and Scorsese uses rumbling thunder and howling wind to underscore the constant feeling of dread and doom. But things get even darker when out of the weather, as everyone at the hospital seems to be hiding something. The orderlies and nurses stare oddly at Teddy and Chuck, the warden keeps just a little too close, and even the seemingly gentle and easy-going psychiatrist Dr. Crawley (Ben Kingsley) seems to be keeping secrets behind his warm smile. And then there's Max Von Sydow as a German psychologist who seems eager to provoke the detectives and may have dark secrets of his own.
DiCaprio , in his fourth outing with Scorsese, once again finds new notes to play as Teddy. A hard-boiled detective whose wife was killed in an arson fire, he has no sympathy for murderers. He talks tough and scoffs at Crawley's belief that patients must be treated with respect and dignity if rehabilitation is possible. But Teddy has his own demons - he suffers from migraines and, in nightmares, he relives his involvement in the liberation of concentration camps and speaks to the ghost of his wife (Michelle Williams) before she dissolves into ash. Once Rachel Solando's crime is mentioned, Teddy adds visions of dead children to his nightmares. Teddy is a man haunted, and Shutter Island seems more than happy to keep waking the dead.
Scorsese, possibly the most accomplished American director, has carefully assembled a cast of familiar, talented actors whose presence establishes a shorthand with the audience. Ruffalo is the trusty sidekick, Kingsley the calm mentor who may have sinister motives, Patricia Clarkson shows up later to give Teddy some no-nonsense advice and Sydow's very presence always carries a sinister weight. Scorsese wisely lets these actors play familiar notes, but later asks us if we can actually believe anything they've said.
I have to tiptoe lightly here, because the film's endgame will be the subject of much debate. Some will complain that the final twists come out of nowhere, but the truth is that Scorsese has hidden clues to the big reveal throughout the film and I believe a second viewing will actually improve the movie for many. Closely watch the way a character handles a gun, reaction shots that seem innocuous at first or dialogue that, when heard again, may carry a double meaning. Many may not like the dark places the film finds, but it is very apparent that this is the ending the film was building to the entire time.
Still, I suspect that upon closer inspection, not everything will hold up 100 percent. The plot creaks and twists and sometimes seems in danger of unraveling. In retrospect, there are elements of it that require a heavy suspension of disbelief. Then again, how much we second-guess depends on how much we believe the characters when all is revealed.
But Scorsese is not interested in simply putting together a puzzle box. The plot is simply a way for the director to experiment with genre, and delve into his favorite themes of guilt and redemption. He's less interested in "what happened" than in "how it feels." Saturating the film in deep, dark colors and working with an ominous, doom-inspiring soundtrack, Scorsese allows "Shutter Island" to tap into viewers' psyches, haunting them without resorting to explicit violence or jump scares. The film is, in a way, a haunted house story and Shutter Island, with its endless corridors, leaky ceilings and dank cells, is one of the creepiest settings this side of "The Shining." Scorsese's imagery here is nightmarish and yet beautifully grotesque. Teddy's nightmares are terrifying not because of what they show, but because of how they make Teddy feel. There are disturbing and horrifying images put on display, and yet they never feel gratuitous or cheap, as Scorsese films even the most disturbing scenes with the intention of delving into the deeper truths behind them, finding visual poetry in the death camps of Dachau or in a soaking wet child asking Teddy to save her. There's a sadness and grief to the horror created not only by Scorsese's wonderful eye but DiCaprio's powerful performance. The film's final passages could have elicited a clever laugh, but watch them closely; there's a feeling of sorrow and tragedy to them. The film's final words carry a loaded weight and several tragic implications.
"Shutter Island" is a clever mystery whose plot engages us even as we realize its preposterousness. The story, even in novel form, was pure pulp. What Scorsese has done is add a very human layer to this tale and, by doing that, made a film that shows us that what's outside our minds is the least of what we have to fear.