The quickest way to sum up Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island is with a mild distortion of a cliché every writer is encouraged to avoid: It's one hell of a dark and stormy movie. Drenched in weirdness and flooded with water (in the form of hurricane-driven rains and bobbing seas), Shutter Island makes you feel as if reality is receding as steadily as an outgoing tide.
I can't say I totally believed what was happening in Shutter Island, but that may be part of Scorsese's strategy. In its own creepy way, the movie delves into the elusive nature of reality. It also finds an impressively strange setting in which to conduct its inquiries: A prison and mental hospital for the criminally insane located on a lonely island off the coast of Massachusetts.
Working from an adaptation of a Dennis Lahane novel, Scorsese has devoted his obviously substantial talents to creating an encompassing world of entrapment and dread. True to its name and location, Shutter Island definitely floats away from the mainland. It's always dangerous to speculate about a filmmaker's motivations, but I'm guessing Scorsese wants us to lose our grip.
In his fourth major collaboration with Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio plays U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels. It's 1954, and Daniels and his new partner (Mark Ruffalo) have been summoned to Shutter Island to investigate the mysterious disappearance of Rachel Soldano, a woman who murdered her three children, but who has insisted throughout her incarceration that her kids are still alive.
As they investigate, DiCaprio and his partner are met with a series of confounding revelations. First off, the island seems escape proof. Soldano vanished while locked in her room. Orderlies she would have had to pass on her way to any exit claim they never saw her leave. So where the hell did she go?
The always crisp Ben Kingsley plays Dr. Joseph Cawley, the shrink in charge, and Max von Sydow, as severe as ever, portrays another psychiatrist. Von Sydow's Dr. Naehring seems to wield ultimate authority on Shutter Island, a place where prisoners are referred to as “patients” and where lobotomy looms for the most intractable of the island's residents. Cawley insists that he's more interested in helping his patients find a measure of peace than in turning them into harmless, post-lobotomy blobs. Could he be up to something more nefarious?
It should come as no surprise that Scorsese whips up a fair measure of bravura filmmaking. In a brilliant opening, a seasick Daniels and his partner approach the island on a ferry. What we first take as the ferry's fog horn morphs into the musical score in brilliant, ominous fashion. A hurricane that strikes the island is presented with palpable force, and even scenes in which Daniels thinks he's seeing his late wife (Michelle Williams) have an eerie imbalance. The same goes for flashbacks to Daniels' war-time service in which he helped liberate Dachau, the German concentration camp.
It's difficult to think of a recent movie that has made such distinctive use of music. I was conscious of the music – normally not a good thing – but it began to feel like one more element in the environment of dislocation that Scorsese successfully creates. With a potent assist from musical director Robbie Robertson, Scorsese makes use of lots of contemporary classical works from notables such as Krzysztof Penderecki, whose music (The Dream of Jacob, I think) will give you a major case of the willies.
If you're looking for some previous movie references you'll find evocations of Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock. And Dante Ferretti's production design – particularly for the hospital's dreaded Ward C – virtually defines the world “dank.”
Although the filmmaking in Shutter Island, which is based on a novel by Dennis Lahane, is as good as you'd expect and DiCaprio offers Scorsese an able assist, the movie suggests more than it's ultimately able to deliver. The payoff doesn't match the promise, and the story – which occasionally seems to be stumbling in the island's wilderness – begins to feel as if it's taking too long to find its way to a conclusion you may at least have glimpsed before it actually arrives. The ending? Well, we'll talk later.
Shutter Island poses a question that's wedded to the surface of things: Is seeing really believing? Scorsese makes us wonder, and keep on wondering after we've left the theater, but he doesn't dig deeply into the most perilous corners of the human heart nor does shake us to the core.
Think of how you felt after watching Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, and you'll know exactly what I mean.