Expecting a quality film from Martin Scorsese is like expecting to get wet in the rain. It’s the anticipation of the inevitable with the director who has given us so many excellent cinematic experiences, and you wouldn’t be foolish to expect quality here again with Shutter Island. While not Hitchcock, Scorsese has successfully channeled much of the master’s suspense in order to create a faithful adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s dark novel.
Federal Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is heading to the remote Shutter Island with a brand new partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), to investigate the disappearance of one of the patients – a woman who drowned her own children. With the authority of Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) pushing and pulling Daniels toward a more sinister truth about the arcane insane asylum, Daniels attempts to unravel the truth about the island and stay alive long enough to get off of it.
I should say up front the one disclaimer that makes me a different reviewer than most: I’ve read the novel. This definitely changed my perception about a few elements of the story, including what many are most likely calling twists. Lehane’s novel, like his “Mystic River,” is a brilliant character study parading as an exercise in pulp fiction. Scorsese sets himself up for success by choosing wisely his source material and then hugging the themes and tone of the novel tightly before setting them free on the screen.
At the core of the film’s success is that it focuses almost solely on introducing and exploring a single character – Teddy – throughout the run time. DiCaprio is in almost every single shot of the film, and each one serves to tell us more and more about how Teddy responds to the world around him.
Sure, the environment makes your skin crawl as effectively as nails across old stone walls rotten with algae, but all of that only really serves to show how different Teddy is from the audience. While we squirm in our seats at the Civil War-era madhouse and the overgrowth, Teddy almost never flinches against the darkness. It makes what he does flinch at all the more powerful.
There are a few problems. Most notably, the story loses momentum midway through when the clues seem to run short, and seems to be replaced by several dialog-sessions. Don’t get me wrong, the semi-confrontational scenes act as platforms for great performances, but they don’t work tonally or to advance the story any.
There’s also the matter of the writing getting in its own way from time to time. As admirable as sticking to the pulp feel of the novel, there are a few scenes where the writing is pure exposition – and without the brilliance of Sir Ben Kingsley, those lines would have slapped the audience in the face even harder.
Other than that, there is little to complain about. Everything from the scenic design to the music drips with the intensity of cold waves crashing against jagged rocks. The actors all command attention, despite it seeming a bit too easy for them on the script side. Kingsley sort of floats through scenes like a man who knows something about the universe we’ll never be able to comprehend, his Dr. Cawley character a nefarious nurturing figure. Max von Sydow continues his effortless creepiness, Michelle Williams and Emily Mortimer both have their fair share of nervous breakdown-inducing performances, and Mark Ruffalo brings an anchor to the whole affair. Of course, it’s ultimately DiCaprio’s movie, and he delivers a strong (yet not groundbreaking) showing.
However, the overall story that’s told is one that’s darkly intimate, washed over with a layer of mystery that always seems to oscillate from foreground to background alongside Terry’s migraine headaches and flashes of inspiration. What might be considered lamely delivered twists are really the organic conclusions and directions the character is heading in from the beginning – so I see no need to criticize considering that the revelation of the truth is done less in a Gotchya Way, and more in a natural, dramatic way.
Another element that amazes is the hallucination scenes. What could have easily been an all-too-common movie trope became gorgeous sequences that were both fascinating, haunting, and mirrored the subtle jarring moments that take place in reality.
But the real experience here is in the journey that the movie takes us on. Let’s face it – Scorsese at his worst is still better than a majority of working directors out there (which can be proved by placing Boxcar Bertha up against any release in any given year). He knows how to choose his source material, knows how to get the best possible performance from great actors, and knows how to weave those scenes together in the most beautiful of ways – even if that beauty is expressed in cold, wet, angry mental destruction.
The Upside: Great performances, strong directing, and a startlingly great mystery that’s actually a character study.
The Downside: Some weaknesses in the script and a lagging middle section.
On the Side: Paramount originally looked at David Fincher and Brad Pitt to pair on this project.