Shutter Island is a different type of story than Scorsese usually tackles, but you know what, that’s not that unusual. I mean, the man can’t make movies about the mafia every day of the week! Anyway, this one is not as adventurous as some of his others, but is just as successful. He teams up with Leonardo DiCaprio, who once again gives a great performance in a Scorsese film. The film works on almost all levels, the only drawback might be that the “twist” (I don’t know if it’s considered as such, but it feels like it’s supposed to be one) is not as twisty as it maybe could have been. On the other hand, the emotions that the film was able to get out of me around that point made up for it in my opinion.
Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a US Marshal on his way to investigate an escaped mental patient on Shutter Island outside of Boston in the year 1954. With him is his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). Daniels was in WWII and has flashback of liberating Dachau and also of his wife (Michelle Williams) dying in a fire. It’s no surprise that when we first see him he’s trying to “pull [him]self together” after vomiting in a toilet. When the pair get to Shutter Island, it goes without saying that nothing is as it seems.
It seems there is no way a patient could have escaped but apparently one named Rachel did. All of the inmates are dangerous, and Rachel is no exception. She is there for drowning all of her children, while seeming to have no knowledge of it after the fact. The main doctor there, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), seems to be genuinely worried about her, but he also seems a bit reluctant to help. Even more alarming to Daniels is the discovery that Dr. Naehring (Max Von Syndow), a German, is working there. Given his experiences during WWII and the fact that many Nazi scientists were actually brought over after the war, his suspicions of Naehring don’t seem so unreasonable. And what did Nazi doctors do in WWII? Experiment on prisoners. Well, Naehring has plenty of opportunity here. Cawley is quite outspoken against lobotomies and other surgery, but as I said before, nothing is as it seems.
What first seems as an escaped prisoner case soon turns into the investigation of a conspiracy. Then it turns into an investigation into Teddy’s character; at first we know about his experiences in the war and then his wife dying, but through dream sequences we begin to see that his backstory is not all that it seems either. Teddy becomes aware of this as the film goes on as well, but projects this uncertainty onto his situation for the most part. It’s interesting to see how it’s developed.
It’s clear from the beginning that Teddy is unbalanced. He has weird visions and dreams, and in these gets Rachel’s story and his own mixed up. As the conspiracy option opens up, it’s unclear whether this is because he is genuinely insane or if it’s because he’s in the middle of uncovering a conspiracy so he’s being drugged. Similar to the film Gaslight, the coffee he drinks and the food he eats are drugged and making him hallucinate and act, well, crazy. He becomes crazy because someone else is pulling the strings. There are two options, and though I wasn’t completely sure which one the film was going to go with, I knew it was going to be one of those two. And it is. That’s not as much of a let down as it would have been if I had been able to pick one and then that’s the one it ended up being, but nevertheless the plot twist didn’t hit me out of nowhere. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I was sort of expecting a twist going into this film based on the vague things I had heard about it, and while there was one in a manner of speaking, it’s not the twistiest twist ever.
The film doesn’t really need a twist to work though, especially because it continues on with Teddy’s character development even after the supposed twist occurs. His backstory is cleared up once and for all, and it doesn’t feel like a let down because his backstory is so tragic and even if I was sort of able to guess what was going on, it’s clear that Teddy wasn’t able to. And still isn’t by the end, which is a scary thing when you think about it. Teddy has a lot of pain to carry around even if he’s not crazy.
I really like the relationship between Teddy and Chuck in this film. They started out trusting each other pretty quick, and then there was some doubt as to whether Chuck existed at all. Their relationship was able to emerge at the end in a different way but still as a beneficial one, and it gave the film another subtle emotional layer that worked really well. I also thought DiCaprio and Ruffalo had a pretty good chemistry between them, especially during the scene where they are hiding in the church, and also at the very end. That shot of Ruffalo looking from DiCaprio to Kingsley in dismay was really tragic.
Scorsese’s creation of the dream sequences was very good, I thought. The main thing that stood out to me during these is that something is usually falling. Sometimes it’s ashes, others paper, and other times snow. The snow makes sense, but the other two, especially the papers, don’t. I don’t know why this was so effective, but it definitely was. There were also some really great tracking shots when they were approaching the institution in the beginning. I also really like how the camera would circle around Teddy during times of particular confusion.
Though Shutter Island admittedly does not rank too rank high in comparison to Scorsese’s other films, it’s still really good and I highly recommend it. You might see the end coming, but in my opinion that won’t kill the film for you. DiCaprio and the rest of the cast turn in solid performances, the atmosphere is appropriately creepy, there’re some interesting ideas about the treatment of the criminally insane even if they are hammered home a bit too much, and Scorsese shows us some interesting direction as well. It’s a good film from him, and it’s not one of his best only because he’s Scorsese.
“Why are you all wet, baby?”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars