Acclaimed director Martin Scorsese seems to have decided to relax and just have fun in the past few years. After seeming to endlessly chase after Oscar gold with films like Gangs of New York and The Aviator he ended up winning that coveted award by simply going back to what he did best: modern gangster films (The Departed in that case.) Now that the man that some critics call the greatest living director finally has his awards validation he opted for something far less prestigious for his follow up. Shutter Island is a psychological thriller rife with pulpy influences and drenched in carefully constructed visual style. While Scorsese definitely seemed to just be having fun at this point he’s somewhat let down by the story (based on the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name.)
Shutter Island opens with the arrival of two US Marshals, played by Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed) and Mark Ruffalo (Zodiac,) on the titular land mass. The remote island is the home of a mental hospital for the most violent of criminally insane patients. There a woman patient has escaped, seemingly vanished from her room, and it falls to the Marshals to try to find her. However DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels has more on his mind than just a missing woman. The recent loss of his wife weighs heavily on him and he suspects that there is far more going on at the island facility that the treatment of patients. Daniels tries to pry the truth from the patients and doctors, primarily doctors Cawley (played by Oscar winner Ben Kingsley of Sexy Beast and Ghandi) and Naehring (played by Max Von Sydow of The Exorcist.) However the deeper that Daniels looks the more the truth seems to elude him and soon his own grasp of reality is being called into question.
Leonardo DiCaprio (in his fourth collaboration with Scorsese) is definitely the central focus Shutter Island. While DiCaprio has never totally worked on the occasions he’s tried to be tough he works very were here. Teddy Daniels, isn’t a tough guy, rather he’s inquisitive and highly damaged and it’s that combination that makes him rough around the edges rather than some vague sense of machismo. DiCaprio plays the part as determined and methodical right from the start. However as the layers are peeled back over time and the audience is given more and more information about his true motives Daniels himself begins to come apart. As he draws closer and closer to the answers he seeks DiCaprio is able to play his increasing desperation extremely well. Despite being set in a mental home DiCaprio actually has what seems to be most unhinged character. That isn’t to say there aren’t some colorful patients in the background but they’re never shown in nearly as much depth as Daniels. The depths that are shown of his character reveal deeper and deeper personal scars.
As Shutter Island shows Daniels in a more and more revealing light as it goes on the other characters serve more as steady support. As Daniels’ hunt for the truth continues and he himself breaks down the other characters are steadfast and serve to stabilize the story. Mark Ruffalo is particularly soothing as the new partner, very much serving as the rock to DiCaprio’s crashing waves. Despite the fact that the pair have only just met there’s a wonderful chemistry and an inherent trust between the two that is very believable. Ben Kingsley approaches the role of the head of the facility with a delicate touch, this is quite nice since it’s a part that could easily have been overplayed on certain aspects. As much as Kingsley’s character seems to be in the middle of all that is happening he himself is so disarmingly calm and soothing that it builds a great dynamic between himself and DiCaprio.
Despite Shutter Island‘s strong performances and a very good initial steady build up there is a scene that occurs about 2/3rds of the way in that simply murders the tension. The scene in question is a long exposition scene in a cave. Without getting into spoilers it offers an explanation for everything going on. Even though that explanation is brought into question almost immediately the mere presence of a possible and complete answer takes the wind out of the movie. The film is wonderfully engaging when there are a multitude of possible explanations for what is going on. Having a character say what is happening takes the mystery away. That scene forces the film into a much narrower range of resolutions, either the explanation given is completely right or the rational opposite is the truth. The film tries to bring the tension and mystery back by poking holes in that explanation but it’s just not the same. The eventual answer is thankfully not played as some sort of mind shattering twist (most astute movie goers can come up with a guess in the first 30 minutes that will be pretty close to the truth.) However by then the only real fun is just seeing how various aspects of the story fit into that answer, but that is only academically interesting and not nearly as engaging as the first half of the film.
Shutter Island starts out as a tensely atmospheric mystery but ultimately becomes a mildly interesting diversion. Scorsese present a visually arresting piece of genre fiction but ultimately he’s let down by the story structure and the exposition scene that sucks the energy from the film. It’s still extremely well made but it’s not able to sustain the level of interest and tension that it starts out with. The film never fails to be interesting, however by the end it isn’t really all that engaging. It’s still worth a look for thriller fans or those who enjoy DiCaprio and/or Scorsese but without some sort of built in interest in the cast, crew or style viewers may walk away underwhelmed.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5