You’re invited to an island in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by tumultuous seas, beset by unpredictable weather, and with only one way out – by a ferry owned by someone who doesn’t like to go near the place. Mainly because the island houses a hospital for the criminally insane. The only thing that could make it any worse is if a hurricane hit. You can probably guess what happens next.
Teddy is half-broken from the off and his skewed vision takes you on a genuinely thrilling, unpredictable ride through Scorsese’s world, even if you do get the feeling that DiCaprio could have played this part with his squinty eyes shut.
US Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) takes up the offer made by Ashecliff Hospital’s lead psychiatrist, Dr Cawley, to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a female ‘patient’, Rachel Solando. Having drowned her three young children, Rachel (Emily Mortimer) spent her days thinking her fellow inmates were neighbours and the staff were postal workers. Then she disappeared, leaving her shoes behind her, from a secure room on an island with its own security force and high voltage fence. Your typical ‘locked door’ mystery, then.
Teamed with new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), Teddy soon realises his biggest challenge is the inscrutable Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley), who refuses him access to patient and staff records, all the while acting as if he’s enjoying the drama. Then there are further issues to contend with, such as why an island this small needs its own security team, whether Rachel disappeared at all and just what unspeakable things are occurring in the lighthouse. There are more questions than patients on Shutter Island and Teddy discovers that it’s much easier to get on than it is to get off.The madness appears to be catching as Teddy battles with his personal demons and his obsession with finding Andrew Laeddis, the pyromaniac who killed his wife. He flits feverishly between dreams of his dead wife (Michelle Williams) and flashbacks to the Nazi concentration camp he encountered as a soldier with its piles of innumerable dead. The narrative becomes as fractured as Teddy’s unreliable consciousness, but there are enough precious moments of lucidity to keep the tension building as you spiral towards a masterful plot twist.
Based on the novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane, the reason for the 1954 setting rapidly becomes apparent. Aside from providing an excuse for DiCaprio and Ruffalo to kit out in high waisted trousers and excessive shoulder pads, it’s also an era where you can hear the words ‘hospital for the criminally insane’ and not think of Gotham City. And the lack of technological ‘get out’ clauses add greatly to the claustrophobic, desperate atmosphere that surrounds Shutter Island. No one will be making a quick phone call to get off this brooding rock pile. There’s no plane, no boat, no escape.
Gangs of New York, Aviator, The Departed – director Martin Scorsese certainly is fond of putting DiCaprio through the emotionally unstable grinder. As he ages, DiCaprio may seem to be becoming more soft putty than man, but it does mean that he can mould himself into these downtrodden, world-weary roles. Teddy is half-broken from the off and his skewed vision takes you on a genuinely thrilling, unpredictable ride through Scorsese’s world, even if you do get the feeling that DiCaprio could have played this part with his squinty eyes shut.
Ruffalo (Zodiac) eases into sidekick mode as Teddy’s partner. He does a sweet turn as the hero-worshiping Chuck who bumbles around the island after the fraught US Marshal, looking like he’s just escaped from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Ben Kingsley also seems to thoroughly enjoy his role as the hammy Dr Crawley, existing in an insular world where doctors sit in velvet chairs near open fires, with a brandy in one hand and a cigar in the other. His secretive smile keeps you guessing as to whether Dr Crawley really believes that the inmates are patients and not prisoners, as he so often insists.
There are some wobbly moments that can’t be excused by the twist. It’s long in parts and there’s a bizarre cliff-scaling scene that even Leonardo DiCaprio shouldn’t be capable of. This film might be sombrely billed as a psychological thriller, but as it features a building that houses the really criminally insane, it raises certain morbid expectations, yet these are never really fulfilled.
Scorsese will be known for better work but as far as entertainment goes, this is one of his best. With a discordant, nerve-striking score, expertly layered tension and some excellent dialogue, Shutter Island might be disjointed but it never loses sight of its goal. There is definitely method in the madness.