Scosese, for me, has been a mixed bag. His older films, like Casino, are amazing, however, I haven’t been a huge fan of Martin Scorsese’s recent films. I thought The Aviator was good but is filled with a lot of melodramatic elements and I must’ve been the only person that didn’t think The Departed was something worth writing home about. I mean, it was fine, but Best Picture? The only recent film that had a big, positive impact on me was his love letter to The Rolling Stones in his concert film Shine A Light. As an audience member, one can really sense his passion for the band and concert films throughout the entire runtime of the movie. Now, Scorsese returns to his original form with Shutter Island, to which I had my doubts. Since it was a period piece, I thought Shutter Island was going to go down the same route as The Aviator and feature hammy acting and a mundane script. Even the though the film may start off that way, Scorsese knows how to revel in doubt and, as the film plays, the performances and the story build up more and more momentum and by the end of the film, Scorsese made me a believer that he had returned back as a memorable, elaborate filmmaker.
It’s a choppy day at sea when Teddy Daniels, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his newly appointed partner Chuck, played by Mark Ruffalo, sweep through the endless swell and arrive to the infamous Shutter Island to investigate a disappearance. Shutter Island is the home of the Ashecliffe Hospital where patients with severe mental disorders are kept; some are more deranged than the others to a point where other patients are scared of each other. Due to Teddy’s troubled past, he has been waiting for an assignment where he would be able to check out the island and find out how operations are being run. Just a day into the investigation, Teddy can already sense that something is fishy and that the main Doctor, Cawley, played by Ben Kingsley, is behind a viscous conspiracy. The hospital begins to be very strict about what the detectives can and can not see which further convinces our hero that something strange is afoot. Frustrated that they can’t execute their practices, Teddy and Chuck decide to leave the island and let this mystery fall in someone else’s hands. However, due to horrific weather, the two detectives are unable to leave the island and Teddy begins to grow uneasy and begins to question his own stability under which he’s developing cabin fever.
As stated before, the film starts off on an uncomfortable foot. During its first 30 minutes or so, Shutter Island looks and feels fake. The acting by all players feels really theatrical, the dialogue sounds unnatural, and, on the whole, everything feels like it went through a gigantic Hollywood machine. Nothing happening on the screen makes me believe this could happen or that these characters could exist, which is a big problem with a mystery/thriller such as this. The pacing also feels off during these scenes. The story is being explained in a very slow manner and the conversations characters are having with each other feel artificial and boring. However, when Teddy begins to challenge himself and wonder where the border is between reality and fabrication, the film starts to pick up its pace and everything starts to become very interesting. Laeta Kalogridis, who penned the screenplay based upon the novel of the same name written by Dennis Lehane, does a stellar job at creating uncertainty among the characters and is able to successfully translate this to an audience. Through chilling dream sequences and adventures through dark, peculiar corridors, Kalogridis is able to establish an uneasy feel and really make an audience squirm. On that note, the film has been advertised as a horror film. This isn’t the case. Shutter Island is a thriller with horror elements and Kalogridis is able to balance the two mediums strongly. I even believe that Kalogridis, in some scenes, was making an homage to Kubrick’s The Shining with Teddy growing delirious and with the overall creepy tone he’s established. However, the film, never once, feels like it’s ripping off The Shining in any way. Shutter Island stands on its own.
With it’s elaborate script, Shutter Island also succeeds with its strong direction and acting. When the film reaches that point where it starts to involve its audience, the direction by Scorsese is superb. Scorsese is able to add a surreal look to the film during these disturbing sequences. By having long takes of the actors trying to figure out what’s going on in a situation, Scorsese makes the audience unsure of themselves, and, thus, we don’t know what will happen next. Scorsese is a master of detail as well. The film takes place in 1954 and everything within the sets are authentic to its time. Even though the sets come off with a Hollywood feel at times, there’s no doubt in seeing that a lot of work and thought went into making these locations convincing. With the tense moods the director and the screenwriter create, the acting helps make the tone feel even more authentic. Again, once the film gets interesting, it seems as if the cast begin to grow more interested as well. Teddy seems like a flat character at first but once he starts growing delusional, Leonardo DiCaprio does a wonderful job portraying erratic uncertainty while still being an effective protagonist. Also, Mark Ruffalo’s Chuck begins to take a more interesting role in the film and it’s a character we wish has more screentime because of what Ruffalo does with the character. Ruffalo is able to execute a variety of emotions effectively and we, the audience, feel for him when Teddy loses his temper on him. After the 30 minute checkpoint, there are also great performances by Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, and Michelle Williams, who does an incredible job balancing compassion and being flat-out creepy. We also get a hard-hitting cameo from Jackie Earle Haley, who continues to prove that he nails every character, whether their big or small roles, with intensity and deep, incredible character development. There is not one doubt we have when he is on screen.
Shutter Island could’ve been a carbon copy of what I didn’t like about The Aviator; hammy, eye-rolling inducing melodrama. However, after an iffy beginning, Shutter Island becomes something incredible. With its remarkable script and direction and strong performances, Shutter Island evolves into an excellent, tense, psychological thriller that isn’t afraid to scare its audience. However, if that beginning was tightened up a little better and had more of a punch, Shutter Island would be an extremely stronger finished product.