With “Shutter Island,” legendary director Martin Scorsese has crafted an aesthetic film-noir marvel that pays homage to both Hitchcock and to old-school ghost stories. Problem is, as immersive as “Shutter Island” is, as well-acted, atmospheric, gothic and artistically magnificent, much of its splendor is wasted on a pulpy story and an ending that delivers the resonance of a collapsing house of cards.
Leonardo DiCaprio (who’s become a Scorsese mainstay) plays federal marshal Teddy Daniels. Daniels is a WWII veteran who suffers from migraines and severe flashbacks from his involvement in the liberation of the concentration camp at Dachau. In 1954, Daniels and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), are assigned to investigate a patient disappearance at the Ashecliff Hospital for the criminally insane. Ashecliff houses some of the world’s most deranged criminals and is thus built on isolated Shutter Island. The escaped patient is one Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), a woman who drowned all three of her children during a psychotic episode.
Ashecliff’s chief psychiatrist, Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley), describes Rachel as delusional; she apparently believes her children are alive and that she still lives with them at home. How she escaped a maximum security facility unnoticed is a deep mystery. With a hurricane approaching though, if Rachel isn’t found soon, Cawley doubts she’ll survive long. In the course of an investigation that ranges the island, Daniels and Aule become trapped in the storm and are forced to stay on Shutter Island longer than originally planned.
Their investigation uncovers evidence of a deep-seeded conspiracy involving patient abuse and experimentation, the cold war, and mind control. Apparently, everyone at Ashecliff—from the warden (Ted Levine) to the psychiatric staff to the janitorial and kitchen workers—is complicit in the conspiracy and Daniels can trust no one. His only escape is the ferry controlled by Ashecliff’s staff and, worse, he has consumed pills for his migraines from Dr. Cawley he thought were aspirin.
To make matters even worse, Daniels is deeply haunted by the murder of his wife Dolores (Michelle Williams), who was killed by an arsonist currently housed at Ashecliff. As the investigation at Shutter Island deepens and the evidence accumulates, Daniels begins to see visions of both his deceased wife and of his bloody, unsettling experiences at Dachau. Are those hallucinations caused by Cawley’s pills or are they the symptom of a deeper problem in Daniels’ psyche? Will he escape the island and expose Ashecliff’s conspiracy? Or, as he’s warned by a handful of patients during the investigation, is he being set up to appear mentally unhinged so that he can be committed and permanently silenced?
It would be difficult to point to any single performance in “Shutter Island” as the finest. DiCaprio—who’s one of current cinema’s most underrated stars—provides his usual, compelling presence and Ben Kingsley is all secretive smiles and genteel menace. We sense something grave and unsettling beneath the good doctor's outward demeanor, possibly a streak of clinical malevolence or sadism. Max von Sydow is especially good as Dr. Jeremiah Naehring, a mad scientist type who revels in analyzing and toying with Daniels and Aule.
My biggest single issue with “Shutter Island” is the ending. Although Scorsese followed the source material closely, (Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name) what might succeed on the printed page, might have been better reinterpreted for film. Although it’s never a good idea to second guess an auteur like Scorsese, I can’t help suspecting that “Shutter Island” might have been improved by a more straight-forward, less gimmicky conclusion.
That’s not to say this film is a waste; works by masters like Scorsese seldom are, but “Shutter Island” drags in places. Worse, about halfway through, many viewers will begin to unravel the story’s grand twist—if not guess it outright—and that predictability adds a sense of futility. So, while “Shutter Island” makes for a well-written, moderately engrossing two-plus hours of escapism, the film ultimately has little value beyond a single viewing. For some, even that will be one too many.