(Warning: The following review delves ever so slightly into spoiler territory, so you may wish to avoid reading this if you haven’t watched the movie yet.)
And for his next trick, Martin Scorsese does his very best M. Night Shyamalan impression and tries his hand at the horror genre.
Shutter Island, by all means, isn’t a bad movie; it’s just a movie that’s completely beneath a veteran and iconic filmmaker like Scorsese. Certainly Scorsese isn’t above making genre pictures or shooting a horror film, but he’s certainly better than giving in and falling afoul of modern lazy and cheap filmmaking conventions, and the one moment of weakness he affords himself in Shutter Island tanks his integrity and undermines the solid, chilling, and atmospheric detective thriller he spends two hours building upon before the climax rolls around. The Shyamalan reference isn’t totally arbitrary; Scorsese’s film ends with a truly puzzling and scatterbrained reveal that calls the entire film preceding it into question and really stretches the limits of suspension of disbelief. Which is a shame, because Shutter Island could have been a pretty great film sans the needless damage these twists and turns inflict upon narrative and plot.
Shutter Island‘s action takes place on an island in Boston Harbor, upon which Ashecliffe Hospital– a facility for the criminally insane– is located. We join Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) as they arrive to assist in the search for an escaped patient who allegedly disappeared from the secured confines of her cell. In their search they’re alternately aided and simultaneously balked by head psychiatrist John Cawley (Ben Kingsley) as they being to uncover a terrible secret about the hospital and its true purpose. All the while, Teddy’s own mental state degrades as he’s tormented by visions of his dead wife while he searches for the man who claimed her life– who happens to be a patient at the facility.
If I have but one reaction to Shutter Island it’s that I’d like to see Scorsese go for full-on horror in the future. Shutter Island is high concept “horror” that never goes into full-on scare territory but instead wades into eerie and unnerving waters ponderously and very deliberately; it’s a slow-burn based more on pace, tension, and atmosphere than outright terror (though it certainly has its share of unsettling and creepy moments). Scorsese, working off of a Dennis Lehane novel, takes his time developing his world and his characters and relishes getting the audience to the pulse-quickening moments of dread that come to define part of the movie’s identity; unsurprisingly he’s more than adept at fostering the inherent suspense and anticipation of the plot. We might expect to be scared more than we are but I think that that’s exactly what Scorsese is aiming for– generating that sense of fear one feels when they know they’re about to be scared by something just to make us feel it. It’s pretty gripping stuff, rewarding to experience and utterly effective when it has us in its thrall.
But in the end Shutter Island proudly identifies itself more as a thriller than a total horror film– and Scorsese has plenty of experience in both of those areas. So the purest joy of the film comes from knowing that we’re watching a true master in his profession perform his craft and captivate us with an engrossing and expertly stitched together mystery. If nothing else Shutter Island is an incredibly well-made film, paced absolutely perfectly and structured logically and intelligently; it doesn’t hurt that it also boasts some of the best photography seen this year, so much so that Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson make the Medfield State Hospital’s age and decay look stunningly beautiful in all its decrepit and time-worn glory. Maybe this should be expected from a veteran filmmaker like Scorsese; he’s a man who’s been anchored behind the camera for four decades or so and who knows exactly what he wants out of every shot every single time, after all, so praising his pictures (even his more slight ones, like Gangs of New York or The Aviator) for being so perfectionist almost feels unnecessary. Such compliments nearly go without saying.
At the center of all of this technical excellence, there’s a story about a man unraveling and losing his sense of self. It’s interesting that Shutter Island came out just five months before Christopher Nolan’s Inception; they’re completely different movies that compete with one another on the basis of common themes and a shared leading man (and for my money Nolan has Scorsese beat). Cut away the details that separate these two films from one another and you have a core narrative about one man desperate to put off confronting reality and facing down a looming, personal, and emotional trauma involving the death of his wife. Ultimately this is the story of Teddy Daniels and his unwillingness to confront honestly the circumstances surrounding his wife Dolores’ (Michelle Williams) untimely end, and about his crumbling sanity and slowly fading identity. And it’s also about Leonardo DiCaprio’s continued position as Scorsese’s latest on-screen alter ego as he yet again takes the starring role in the director’s latest picture.
It’s almost a given today that if Scorsese comes out with a new movie, DiCaprio will be one of the leads. It’s not like this is an unheard of practice; certainly directors of old have done it (Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa were both well-known for it) and even other directors today play favorites (Tim Burton, for example, with Johnny Depp). And DiCaprio himself has lately become something of a go-to guy for playing troubled anti-heroes between his roles in The Departed and Inception, so apart from this being a Scorsese film the actor feels right at home here. DiCaprio’s performance evolves from a portrait of a hard-boiled, hot-headed gumshoe-type to a frantic and broken man desperately trying to assuage himself of his own guilt and spiritual pain; the actor makes his character a performer in his own way and lets his transformation come gradually and naturally, never overselling or tipping his hat too much to reveal more of his character’s mind than he needs to. DiCaprio continues, in movie after movie, to mature as an actor, and between Shutter Island and Inception 2010 might be one of his best years yet, with two really choice performances delivered under the guidance of two high profile directors.
I’ve written over a thousand words of positive commentary on this film, and I’m not trying to mislead you at all– Shutter Island is worth seeing, without a doubt. But it’s probably not worth revisiting almost solely because of how badly it missteps in its last act by upending the entire movie we’ve just watched and pulling the rug out from underneath us. There’s nothing wrong with a game-changing twist or reveal; such tricks can be immensely satisfying dramatically and can add to the story in a meaningful way that enhances the entire experience of watching the movie. But as with everything, there’s a right way to write a twist and a wrong way, and Shutter Island regrettably toddles down the latter path and shoots itself in the foot along the way. Twists should never, ever make a viewer skeptical about the movie preceding them, and unfortunately that’s precisely what happens in Shutter Island‘s climax. Coming from another filmmaker this might have been forgivable in light of the quality of the rest of the film– indeed, a rookie director would have been highly praised for turning out such an accomplished movie despite the grievous error in its denouement– but for Scorsese this is utterly inexcusable, a lapse in judgment that ends up marring an otherwise worthwhile movie from one of the greatest directors of his time.