BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A federal marshal with a haunted past must track down an escaped patient on an island-bound mental hospital where nothing is as it seems.
PROS: Strong performances by a solid cast; interesting directorial choices by Scorcese and rich camerawork and music make hackneyed material into a genuinely scary viewing experience.
CONS: Fantasy sequences go on a little too long; the parts, when put together, don’t quite add up to a sensible whole; and even casual genre fans might see the ending pretty early.
At first glance, Shutter Island would seem an odd movie to review for a science fiction site. It opens as a noir thriller, with homage to such movies as Out of the Past, In a Lonely Place and The Big Combo, and is set in 1954, at a time when the House Un-American Activities Committee whipped up anti-Communist paranoia. However, little screen time elapses before one realizes that the noir elements in fact share space with three other genres: Gothic, haunted house story and existential horror movie, with twists and reversals reaching frantic levels as it spin towards its climax.
So it’s a genre picture, and a good one at that. If it’s not up to the level of Scorcese’s best work (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas), it proudly stands alongside his second tier work (After Hours, The Color of Money, Cape Fear), though fans familiar with the genre tropes might guess where it’s going pretty early.
It opens with U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) riding a ferry to an island for the criminally insane near Massachusetts. Seasick and haunted by the water separating him from the mainland (“It’s just water,” he says as, pale and drenched in sweat, he stares through a porthole. “It’s a lot of water.”), he meets his new partner from Seattle, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), seemingly bemused that they must investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando, who murdered her children by drowning them and, according to Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley, one of the best things in the movie), the hospital’s chief psychiatrist, has had a psychotic break with reality: she remembers nothing of her crime, and believes everybody at the hospital to be from the suburb where she lived.
Once on the island, mysteries unfold and occlude other mysteries. Daniels and Aule learn that Solando escaped seemingly with nobody noticing (“We don’t know how she got out of her room,” Cawley tells Daniels. “It’s as if she evaporated, straight through the walls.”) and barefoot. As they search her room, Daniels finds a piece of paper scrawled with two sentences: “The rule of 4” and “Who is number 67?” Cawley doesn’t know what they could mean.
And then things get strange. Cawley and Dr. Jeremiah Naehring (Max Von Sydow) refuse to let Daniels or Aule review the patient files. An impending storm forces Daniels and Aule to stay on the island, and Daniels has vivid dreams of his wife dying during a fire started by the pyromaniac he put behind bars and who, it seems, is also on the island, and of Daniels’ part in the liberation of Dachau. It doesn’t take long for Daniels to become convinced something sinister is occurring on the island, and that Cawley and Naehring are somehow working for the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The movie is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, one which is something of a departure for that author. Lehane wrote a popular mystery series during the 1990s before turning his hand to Mystic River, the turn of the century’s first great American postmodern naturalist novel. The book, as with all of Lehane’s work, is very well written, but has difficulty expressing particular looks and specific emotions of many of its characters. Indeed, Shutter Island works better as a movie than as a novel, in part because of the knowledge the actors and the directors can convey, in part because Lehane never quite managed to build the sense of paranoia his story needed.
From the beginning, the movie puts its audience in a state of unease. The first shots on the ferry have a dreamlike, hallucinatory quality that carries on throughout the movie. Cuts within individual scenes never quite match continuity: actors’ physical proximity and movements don’t fully mesh, and in one or two scenes actors overdub their lines when their lips are closed. In one scene, patient Bridget Kearns (played by Robin Bartlett) obviously pantomimes drinking a glass of water as Daniels and Aule question her in one shot, then sets down an empty glass in another. As Daniels continues to question her, one sees that the glass still has water.
Director Martin Scorcese and star Leonardo DiCaprio deserve credit for making Shutter Island work. Scorcese is no stranger to psychological thrillers; his skills brought plenty of unease and menace to both After Hours and the remake of Cape Fear, though both lacked the control to make them great motion pictures. With Shutter Island, however, Scorcese managed to successfully channel Jacques Tournier and Edgar G. Ulmer, then mixes both Val Lewton and Stanley Kubrick to create a pervasive sense of dread. (Kubrick seems present, too, in Scorcese’s decision to not use any original music.) At times he slips. Dream sequences occasionally last too long, and the key revelation could have been tightened. And while he manages to keep the viewer’s attention riveted, one leaves the theater wondering if the pieces actually do add up.
DiCaprio, too, shines. In previous efforts with Scorcese, he always appeared to be far too young (The Departed) or too slight (The Aviator). He is now 35, and the thickening that comes to men as they age has worked in his favor; for the first time since Titanic in 1997, he does not look like a twelve-year-old playing grown-up. He also manages, on occasion, to show up actors from previous Scorcese pictures: where, in Cape Fear, Robert DeNiro couldn’t help barfing all over the scenery, DiCaprio keeps his craft focused to a point. It helps, too, that he is working with a cast that gets the material and never tries to rise above it.
Shutter Island is a minor work by a man many cinemagoers would consider one of the greats, but still manages to be an effective shocker. After a month of horrendous releases, its release comes as a breath of much needed fresh air. Or a splash of cold water.