Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels
Mark Ruffalo as Chuck Aule
Ben Kingsley as Dr. Cawley
Max von Sydow as Dr. Naehring
Michelle Williams as Dolores
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Director Martin Scorsese gets his Hitchcock on in a big way in the expertly wrought Shutter Island but this psychological thriller is bound to disappoint some viewers who feel that the trailers and TV ads have promised a straight-up shocker. Despite its suspenseful narrative, this is not going to be the crowd-pleaser that Scorsese's previous foray into the horror/thriller genre â€“ Cape Fear (1991) â€“ was. Having said that, Shutter Island is an excellent film â€“ regardless of whatever initial grumblings might greet it.
Based on the 2003 Dennis Lehane novel, Shutter Island is â€“ by design â€“ a cornucopia of Gothic clichÃ©s. There's an ominous, fortress-like mental hospital (set on an island, no less), a medical staff that is consistently giving off sinister, conspiratorial vibes (easy to do when one of the doctors â€“ played by Max Von Sydow â€“ appears to be an ex-Nazi), there's a hurricane that's buffeting the island making departure by ferry impossible, and then there's the mental patients themselves â€“ many of them with histories of violence. Scorsese embraces all these elements with a film buff's relish â€“ making Shutter Island ripe with noir atmosphere.
If that were all that Shutter Island was about, Scorsese indulging in dark and stormy moodiness, this would still be a recommendable film. However, there's a harrowing story at the heart of Shutter Island and a burden of emotional pain on its protagonist that bars the film from being strictly a carefree genre exercise. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall assigned to investigate the apparently inexplicable disappearance of a female patient on Shutter Island. With his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) in tow, the two lawmen venture into the heavily guarded facility. From the start, Teddy's investigation is frustrated by the efforts of Shutter Island's arrogant, secretive chief physician, Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and soon both Teddy and Chuck seem to be in peril themselves.
To say any more about the plot of Shutter Island would be unfair. I don't think the revelation of Shutter Island's climax is all that hard to anticipate â€“ at least in a general sense â€“ but what's intriguing as the movie unfolds is wondering how everything will come together. The last act delivers a tricky, potentially audience-alienating reveal but Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis (as well as all the actors involved) have done a fine job of putting it across. It's a conclusion that demands a second viewing of the film, just to discover how many clues were laid out along the way.
While I expect that a second viewing will prove that Scorsese and co. have played very fair with their audience, the idea of rewatching Shutter Island immediately may not be especially inviting to many. This is not a simple horror film out to provoke gasps and shudders; instead this is a bleak, despairing film about broken people. It's expertly directed, written, and acted (with top-notch technical credits of production design, editing, soundtrack, and so on) but because the story is dramatized so effectively (DiCaprioâ€™s virtuoso performance is a study in anguish), it's a rough ride emotionally â€“ particularly once all the narrative cards have been turned over. It's a film that's enveloped by doom and madness; it's a film about identity and memory and how precarious and mercurial they can be.
Scorsese has brought his A-game to this pulp material and in doing so has made it into a haunting character study. Made with a craftsman's care and a film-lover's regard for the horror and thriller genres, Shutter Island will undoubtedly prove to be one of the finest films of the year.