Shutter Island can be explained with one word: nightmarish. Make no bones about it, it’s a film where the ending can be deciphered rather quickly – from the trailer even – and yet, it’s fascinating to watch the events unfold, if only to see how off-kilter the pieces of this filmic puzzle are. The conclusion is obvious, but watching a master craftsman pick and choose which clues to show and how is the real beauty of Scorsese’s latest foray into psychological terror.
The mood is set from the first shots as Ashecliffe – an asylum for the criminally insane – is shown through Robert Richardson’s cinematography as more of a character than a location. Between the moody lighting and the foreboding sense of dread that permeates from almost every frame, Richardson’s work proves about as integral to the atmosphere and storytelling of Shutter Island as Scorsese’s direction, DiCaprio’s acting chops and Laeta Kalogridis’ screenplay – all exemplary, I might add.
Ashecliffe might be the more obvious “haunted house” of the film but there is a second in DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall sent to the asylum, along with his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), to look for an inmate that has mysteriously vanished into thin air. Of course, nothing is what it seems at Ashecliffe and the patients and doctors (with excellently evil performances by Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow) seem to be harboring a giant secret. After the initial setup, the film really starts getting into nightmare territory, offering up a disorienting reality as seen through Teddy’s eyes. Between the actual nightmares – ranging from his time liberating Dachau to his wife’s demise at the hands of an arsonist – and the waking nightmares, Teddy’s down and out Marshall is a sight to behold; a man who has ulterior motives for being on the island, and one who’s willing to take risks and a beating to get the truth. He’s not tough, he’s strong-willed. His inner turmoil over the past is manifested quite horrifically in island locales, whether it be the cold, harsh shores or the rusty, metal catwalks of the block reserved for the asylum’s most heinous offenders. And really, above all else, this is a film about dealing with guilt and coming to terms with reality, making the psychological and emotional approach Scorsese is known for the perfect fit for the material.
While Shutter Island is certainly DiCaprio’s show to steal, the aforementioned performances and turns from Ted Levine as a warden, Michelle Williams as a ghostly dead wife, and Jackie Earle Haley and Elias Koteas as crazed inmates are positively chilling. The only performance that felt shafted in the whole affair was Ruffalo’s and it’s not because he was bad (quite the opposite, actually), he just wasn’t given much to do aside from being a sidekick.
Minor Spoilers Ahead
Shutter Island is an almost flawless experience up until the end, and it’s not even because the reveal is obvious; it’s the way it’s overexplained that’s the problem. Certainly, this is a film that’s about the ride and not so much the climax, as clues are littered about the entire film which clearly hint at the ending. But having a character pull out a chalkboard to explain certain details for the benefit of the audience and the characters involved seems a bit desperate. However, the greater concern generates from the fact that after these certain details are examined, we watch them play out in flashbacks, which kind of negates the whole “whose recollection of reality is factual?” angle that could have made the film that much greater, if only because of the intense discussions that could have followed.
End Of Spoilers
Shutter Island might not ever be considered “classic” Scorsese but it’s a damn fine example of a master hard at work. It’s a fantastic homage to Val Lewton B-movies (Bedlam and a few others came to mind while viewing it) and an experience that’s worth having a second time at the least. If you can appreciate the nightmarish, gothic charms of the classic horror films of yesteryear, you will no doubt be entranced by the mystery surrounding Shutter Island and its inhabitants.
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