One thing that can kill a movie is high expectations. When the excitement builds for a movie, there’s nothing worse than the tragic let down, it feels like a waste of enthusiasm.
The expectations for "Shutter Island," based on the Dennis Lehane novel, were enormous; especially considering it was directed by Martin Scorsese, the man behind "Goodfellas" and "The Departed." Does "Shutter Island" live up to its tremendous expectations?
The answer is a resounding yes. "Shutter Island" isn’t one of Scorsese’s masterworks, but that doesn’t matter. It’s a great movie on its own terms. It’s a haunting, twisted film that combines elements of Gothic horror and film noir to create something that is incredibly entertaining.
The less one knows about the plot going into this movie, the better, so here’s just a basic outline. It’s 1954 and U.S. Marshalls Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, "Catch Me If you Can") and Chuck Aule(Mark Ruffalo, "Collateral") are sent to Ashecliffe Mental Hospital on Shutter Island, which is located in the middle of Boston Harbor and run by Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley, "Schindler’s List").
The marshals are there to investigate the disappearance of a mental patient named Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer, "Chaos Theory"), who was imprisoned for killing her children. Questions arise as soon as Daniels arrives on the island.
How could a woman escape from a locked room barefoot and with no outside help? Why is the staff so reluctant to release information that might help the Marshals? Don’t let anyone give away the answers, since one of the pleasures of this film is just watching these characters get put through the funhouse all the way to the devastating shocker of an ending until it’s unclear where reality ends and insanity begins.
But be warned, this is not a movie that will hold the audience’s hands until the ending. Viewers have to pay close attention to the film at all times, as the smallest details provide major clues.
When dealing with a Scorsese movie, one doesn’t just watch it, they get fully immersed in it. The film is beautifully shot, the hospital and island sets are intricately detailed, and the camerawork is incredible. The camera glides through every scene with a lot of quick zooms and tracking shots that adds a real sense of urgency, so this movie, while moving at a slower pace than most thrillers, is never boring.
The film also has an excellent sense of time and place. The Cold War threat is palpable and Ashecliffe is under suspicion of Nazi experiments such as lobotomies and mind control, so there is a strong feeling for the paranoia of the times. There are moments in this movie where it feels like watching an acid trip gone wrong, mostly in DiCaprio’s dream sequences, but the movie never gets too weird.
But what really carries this movie home are the characters themselves and the performances. DiCaprio, in his fourth film with Scorsese, just keeps getting better and better and is absolutely brilliant in a very challenging role. Like in most Scorsese movies, the main character has many internal demons dealing with guilt, redemption and identity.
Teddy Daniels, a World War II veteran, is plagued by migraine-induced visions of the past. He took part in the massacre of Nazi guards at the Dachau prison camp (these flashback scenes rival "Schindler’s List" in their brutality), and he’s still reeling from the death of his beloved wife Dolores (Michelle Williams, "Brokeback Mountain") who provides cryptic messages in other visions.
DiCaprio excels as a haunted figure with a short fuse dealing with this enormous emotional baggage and who might have private motivations for taking the Shutter Island case. Ruffalo does his best with an underwritten character. Kingsley makes every word he says drip with menace and uncertainty. The rest of the cast is also excellent, with Max von Sydow ("The Exorcist") as a German doctor, Jackie Earle Haley ("Watchmen") as another inmate and Patricia Clarkson ("Pieces of April") as a missing piece to the puzzle.
Since "Shutter Island" is not the run-of-the-mill psychological thriller, it may polarize critics and audiences. It has a terrific ensemble of actors and a master filmmaker who finds new ways to completely mess with one’s head. Scorsese has made a movie that recalls the best films of this genre, from "The Shining" to "The Silence of the Lambs." Go see it immediately.