The film version of Dennis Lehane’s creepy psychological thriller Shutter Island has taken a while to get on the big screen, but it was worth the wait. With Leonardo DiCaprio in the starring role as US Marshall Teddy Daniels, it’s one of the best psychological thrillers in quite a while. With its leisurely pace, moody ensemble and positively sinister exteriors, it’s also a nice reminder that intense movies don’t need to involve massive explosions, zombies, vampires or the wholesale slaughter of innocents.
Set during a stormy weekend in 1954, Shutter Island, located in Boston harbor, is the home of Ashcliff, a mental hospital for the criminally insane, “the only facility of its kind in the whole world: people too dangerous for anywhere else”, as Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) explains to Daniels during the opening scene. Daniels, and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are Boston-based cops sent to the facility to help track down Rachel (Patricia Clarkson), an inmate and psychotic killer who has gone missing and ostensibly poses a threat to the Boston populace.
Daniels is only a few years out of the Army, where he was traumatized by his part in the liberation of the German concentration camp Dachau at the tail end of World War II. His flashbacks are shocking and create great sympathy, even as we begin to wonder who are the patients, who are the doctors, and who’s really crazy in this place?
Shutter Island isn’t a fast-paced horror film. In fact, I can’t recall a single startling scene. The feel of this extraordinarily well assembled movie is more of a slow-motion train wreck, a story that unfolds in creepy, sinister and disturbing ways, even as you realize not everything is as it seems, nor is everyone who you think they are.
Unfortunately, the ending is a big disappointment. In fact, I really want to believe that Martin Scorsese knows this and that that there’s going to be a “director’s cut” when the film comes out on DVD that will tie everything together quite well (it’d only take about 60-seconds of additional footage to do so). As it stands, you might well be pretty unhappy about a two hour film that ends in this manner. You’ve been warned.
Ashcliff is divided into three different wards: Wards A and B are for male and female patients, and the entire area looks more like a pleasant country estate than anything else, with sprawling grounds and beautifully tended flower gardens. None of the patients we see in these wards seems particularly dangerous or crazy, certainly not after ominous pronouncement by Cawley.
Ward C is another story, a former Civil War fortress with sheer multi-story walls interrupted only sporadically by tiny windows and with armed guards patrolling the roof night and day. Ward C is for the most dangerous patients and the entire building only holds 24.
Daniels (DiCaprio) interrogates Dr. Cawley (Kingsley), while Aule (Ruffalo) looks on
The residents of Ward C also including Andrew Laeddis (Elias Koteas), who set the apartment fire that killed Daniel’s wife Dolores (Michelle Williams). Aule is convinced that it’s revenge that’s brought Daniels to Shutter Island in the first place: to track down and kill Laeddis in retaliation for the death of his wife. For her part, Dolores keeps appearing in Teddy’s troubled dreams.
The dream sequences are hallucinatory and visually stunning. In one it’s raining ashes and while Teddy hugs her as tightly as he can, Dolores turns to dust and crumbles away. In another he revisits Dachau but finds that it’s an even more surreal world. In a film about sanity and insanity, you’ll do well to pay close attention to what happens – and who shows up – in these dreams, as they are clues to what’s actually happening in the story.
Another clue that appears early in the film about what’s transpiring is when Cawley explains to the Marshalls that the problem they’re having trying to help the vanished Rachel is “her refusal to acknowledge her crime.” Shutter Island is ultimately about the moral grey area between those who admit their crimes and those who aren’t even aware that they were involved in a crime, let alone acknowledge what they’ve done.
To be fair, Shutter Island is a difficult story to tell on screen, because the weirder it gets, the more internal inconsistencies appear and the more you risk the danger of toying with the viewer. What if the scene you just saw wasn’t real? And the one before it? What if later you realize that they actually were real? After a while, it just ends up being confusing. For example, we gain great sympathy for Daniels through his traumatic flashbacks from the War, but are they real? Did he really experience the liberation of Dachau while in the Army?
I’m already a big fan of Ben Kingsley, ever since his brilliant work in Gandhi, but in addition to his great, menacing performance, I have to compliment the entire cast: it’s distressingly rare that a film comes out where every performance is great, but from DiCaprio and Ruffalo on down the list, everyone really digs into their part and brings it to life, innocent or sinister.
The surprise twist in the film was cool too, though I won’t reveal it here. My disappointment with Shutter Island was that the ending didn’t tap into the inherent ambiguity of a story about truth and fantasy, about reality and hallucinations, about paranoid delusions and secrets too horrible to share. It could have but instead we’re left with a film that is beautifully assembled, stunningly photographed, superbly acted yet a bit of a let down. I’ll recommend it nonetheless and will be curious to see what you thought of the last twenty minutes after you’ve seen it too, dear reader.