Brain-bending “Shutter Island” a stunner despite faults

Cat, meet Mouse: DiCaprio, Ruffalo and Kingsley star in the imperfect but riveting "Shutter Island."

Dry land, no matter where it’s located, offers some measure of comfort — a feeling of solidity, a foundation for the feet. Water does not. Its mysteries are limitless. Martin Scorsese means to capitalize on this elemental human fear early. Does he succeed? Please. The combination of the gray sky, choppy waves, an ashen-faced detective (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the score — which pulsates with supernatural menace — is dynamite. In these opening scenes, Scorsese yanks us around like marionettes. We’re right where he wants us.

He keeps on yanking throughout this long-delayed, atmospheric Gothic thriller/film noir send-up, perhaps having a chuckle as we labor to wrap our minds around the gnarled plot — much of Dennis Lehane’s tightly drawn novel is retained — and reason out characters who are beyond reason. “Shutter Island” is one of those films where everyone is hiding something; each line of dialogue seems designed to reveal everything and nothing. Listen, in particular, for Deputy Warden McPherson’s (John Carroll Lynch) greeting to the two federal marshals just off the boat: “Welcome to Shutter Island.” His eyes are a little teasing, but his tone says without saying: “You don’t know what you’re getting into.” Scorsese structures “Shutter Island” so that we don’t, either.

Here comes the tough part. To reveal too much of the plot would be criminal, so restraint will be the name of this game. No doubt you’ve heard lots of murmurs (some disgusted) about a twist; do not let anyone reveal it. Two U.S. Marshals, Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio, proving again he’s grown to deserve leading-man status) and Chuck Aule (a meh Mark Ruffalo) hop a ferry to Boston’s Shutter Island, the grim site of Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. (Sublime character actors like the ever-creepy Jackie Earle Haley and Patricia Clarkson get cameos.) It’s their first case together, and they’re an odd pair: Teddy’s a visibly haunted man while nothing sticks to the low-key Chuck. They believe they’ve come to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), locked away after drowning her three children. Though no one at Ashecliffe can or will explain her disappearance, chief psychiatrist Dr. John Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley) has a theory. “It’s as if she evaporated straight through the walls,” he says. Kingsley’s slight smirk is cause for a few lost hours of sleep.

The investigation may be a sham. Patients and hospital staff may or may not have been coached. A recovering alcoholic, Teddy, still reeling from the death of his wife (Michelle Williams), may be a reliable or an unreliable protagonist. Rachel Solando may or may not have had help escaping her tiny, barred-in room. The only certainty is there is no certainty. So “Shutter Island,” essentially, is 138 minutes of known unknowns wrapped in a damn stylish package. Little Did He Know noir throwbacks rarely looked this good. The predominantly gray, chilly colors — of the island, the hospital itself — provide a terrific backdrop for such a twisted story about twisted people. Shots of Ward C, home to the most dangerous offenders, show a Gothic castle of untold horrors, where every corner is dark and puddled. Here “Shutter Island” very nearly swerves into horror territory. It comes closer with Scorsese’s envisioning of Teddy’s dreams, so bright they shatter the grimness. Not unlike Dario Argento in “Suspiria,” Scorsese uses the camera like a paintbrush, splashing rich reds and golds and greens against Ashecliffe’s walls and the island’s rocky shores. If despair is dingy, then horror is technicolor.

Sometimes the artistry goes too far at the expense of other elements. There are enough continuity errors as to be distracting (one stopped me cold during a white-knuckle scene). The music occasionally overpowers the characters — about whom, by the way, we learn virtually nothing. They are foreboding (Max von Sydow as Dr. Naehring is downright spine-chilling), and yet their emotional impact is nil. Even Teddy, whose story we come to know and whom DiCaprio imbues with repressed grief and palpable heartbreak, only registers faintly. Then again, “Shutter Island” isn’t out to warm our hearts. The film means to play brains and emotions like piano keys, and it does. And in a psychological thriller? Sometimes that’s more than enough.

Grade: B+

14 Responses

  1. Great review M Carter! I was able to see it last night and I really enjoyed it and in my opinion the best film “so far” in 2010. I would go into more detail, but I’m afraid i might lead into spoiler territory and the film is best viewed without knowing as little as possible.

  2. I had serious issues with Leonardo DiCaprio until “Gangs Of New York”, and “The Departed”. Something about those first two Scorsesse films he did–in my opinion–made him a much, much stronger performer. It was like he suddenly woke up after a career of butchering potentially good roles. That said, my interest in “Shutter Island” never had anything to do with DiCaprio. I was drawn in by seeing Max Von Sydow in something new, and Sir Ben Kingsley ranks as my #1 most respected actor, by far. So I have a feeling I’ll see it for those reasons, and as it’s directed by Scorsesse, hope blossoms in me that DiCaprio won’t be miserable.

    Thank you for this mostly positive review!

    -J.P.

    • In truth with few exceptions I’ve always thought DiCaprio was a good actor. He’s had some flops, but of late, with stuff like “Blood Diamond” and “The Departed” and “Revolutionary Road” he’s really grown as an actor.

  3. Oh Christ, I want to see this movie bad but I have to wait until next week! Hope it’s worth the wait :)

    • My verdict would be: YES. It’s a hell of a good mind-bending thriller even if it isn’t perfect.

  4. I’m surprised this only got a B+ from you, M. You were salivating through your whole review and I expected an A. Now I’m interested. My question is about the “twist”. Most you can see a mile away and so I don’t care if I know ahead of time. Then there are movies like the 6th Sense where ignorance is bliss… which is this?

    • That depends how astute each viewer is, I guess. Had I not read the book before I saw the movie, I think I wouldn’t have figured it out.

      The good news, however, is that if you DO figure it out early on, there are still so many questions left unanswered that the rest of the movie still works beautifully (well, except for those few flaws).

      • I can attest to the the statement that if you do figure it out early the rest of the film is still worth watching. I had 95% of the twist figured out in that opening scene when they are on the boat, but there were still enough surprises and a large enough “coolness” factor that my interest in the film was maintained throughout.

  5. I loved it. The more it’s sunk in on the passing days I appreciate it more and can’t wait to watch it again with new eyes.

    There were moments halfway through where I felt the frustration of claustrophobia and being lost in the confusion of where the story was actually leading, getting caught up in the “real” clues, but being distracted by other point of views. It was a bit much at times. But the end more than made up for that, in fact it validated it.

    I actually loved the score. It made me think of the Omen.

  6. I loved this flick and DiCaprio was amazing in it. I gotta say that I saw the twist coming but even in the end I still was unsure if I was right.

    It was like someone said here’s a muffin. And then I ate the muffin. It tasted like a muffin and looked like a muffin but I was still wondering if it was a pickle.

    That is my weird analogy for the day!

  7. I like gothic style. I’m definetly not an expert but good emotions are coming out of that for me.

  8. [...] So far? “Shutter Island.” The predicted winner? “True [...]

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