Martin Scorsese is a name that is synonymous with great films. It is impossible to call yourself a cinephile and not appreciate the man’s filmmaking. It’s also seemingly impossible to review one of his films without a lengthy preamble discussing his legendary oeuvre; so I’ll spare you that. We all know the great movies he’s made, mentioning how great Taxi Driver and Goodfellas are doesn’t really tell you anything about his latest film. That being said, Shutter Island is bound to be compared with his earlier work; not because it’s not of the same calibre as those other films, but because it’s so different from them.
Before I talk about the film itself, I have to comment on the trailer for the movie. The trailer for Shutter Island gives away far too many details about the film. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll have a pretty good idea of exactly what is going to happen in the film. Seeing the trailer made the film less enjoyable for me.
Spoilers to follow
Based on the novel Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone) the film tells the story of two U.S. Federal marshals sent to investigate the escape of a patient from an isolated mental hospital off the coast of Massachusetts. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) immediately sense that all is not as it appears when the hospital’s administrator (Ben Kingsley) is less than forthcoming with information the marshals need for their investigation. Daniels, who has his own motives for taking on this case, believes that there is more going on at the hospital than just a simple prisoner escape. He and Aule begin to unravel what they believe to be a government conspiracy involving sick experiments being conducted on the patients of Shutter Island. Between a hurricane, patient escapes and an evasive hospital administration the marshals have their work cut out for them.
On the surface, Shutter Island feels like it could one of the most conventional films Scorsese has ever made. In the hands of another director, the film could have easily become a fairly generic psychological thriller. Scorsese captures that 50’s film noir feel right off the bat; the snappy dialogue punctuated by heavy smoking; characters armed with fedoras and trench coats all help to key the viewer in. The introduction to the Island is filled with dread thanks to the intense if over-the-top score put together by Scorsese collaborator Robbie Robertson of The Band. The viewer, like DiCaprio’s character, is immediately thrust into a mindset of paranoia and distrust. Scorsese builds this atmosphere by toying with the viewer’s perception of the proceedings. Dreams within dreams; Flashbacks graphically matched with the present; Small details changing between shots. For example, in a scene where the marshals are questioning a patient about the escape, the patient asks for a glass of water. Aule fills a glass of water for the patient and gives it to her while the interview continues. At one point the patient takes a sip from the glass of water and the shot changes mid sip; in the next shot the patient is still taking the sip but there is no glass in her hand. Small moments like this fill the film, giving it a disjointed and unsettling feeling.
The island institution is filled with colourful characters; Kingsley’s Doctor Cawley always feels like he’s hiding something from the marshals, and the viewer. Max Von Sydow, who plays Jeremiah Naehring, the institute’s chief psychiatrist, constantly talks to others as if they were sitting on his couch. Every question the marshals ask Naehring is met with probing “tell me about your father” questions. The patients are just as evasive as the administration, their answers raising more questions for the marshals. Jackie Earle Haley turns in an extremely disturbing performance as a severely beaten patient who shouldn’t even be on the island. Emily Mortimer is absolutely twisted as the escaped patient Rachel Solondo. The island itself becomes a character in the film, the idyllic institution grounds stand in stark contrast to the black cliffs that ring the island and the shadowy corners of the civil war fort that now stands in as the maximum security ward.
Leonardo DiCaprio turns in a decent performance. I’m not the actor’s biggest fan, but he sold me in Shutter Island. Ultimately though, this is a director’s film. It’s a different movie for Martin Scorsese and some people might want to write it off because it’s not what their used to from the director. Shutter Island, like Scorsese’s other films, is a technically brilliant piece of work. Scorsese’s long time collaborators editor Thelma Schoonmaker and cinematographer Robert Richardson help to make the film a joy to watch. However, despite Scorsese’s expert direction Shutter Island ultimately fell flat for me. The film was well made and well acted, but the plot was utterly formulaic. I knew exactly how the film was going to play out twenty minutes into it. Two and a half hours is a long time to wait for a revelation you figured out at the beginning of the film—even if those two and a half hours were directed by Martin Scorsese. Maybe I was just disappointed, every other film he’s made has surprised me in some way. It may have turned my stomach at times and scared me more than once but Shutter Island failed to surprise me.