Shutter Island | rated R (A, L) | starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine, John Carol Lynch, Patricia Clarkson, Michelle Williams | directed by Martin Scorcesse | 2:18 mins | the following is a review from an advanced screening of the film
Two duely appointed federal marshalls, Teddy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), venture into Shutter Island, a secluded psychiatric facility where a psychologist (Ben Kingsley) experiments with new forms of therapy in 1954, to help them track down a particularly ill patient who has disappeared seemingly out of her cell.
If you hooked me up to a heart monitor during a screening of Martin Scorcesse’s genre picture Shutter Island it would be beating a mile a minute with excitement in the first act, slow to cautious sporatic beats in the 2nd and then flatline in the third. The movie starts out beautifully, a leasurely paced, meticulously constructed film noir mystery with potential supernatural elements, but it starts to unravel as Scorcesse or the screenwriters don’t seem to know how to fit their ending with the established tone and Scorcesse has a hard time weaving in the more surreal elements of the story, then the movie comes to an abrupt deflating hault when the truth comes out. Not since Alejandre Aja’s High Tension have I seen a movie with such a masterful set-up, turn around and destroy everything its built in the final minutes for the sake of a gimmicky ending twist.
When the experienced marshall Teddy and green Chuck arrive at Shutter Island, Scorcesse takes us through the gates and gives us a tour of the institute so rich with detail that it creates for the movie it’s own universe, one of secrets around every corner and potential conspiracies. It takes a look at psychological practices of the 50s with Kingsley as a doctor who seeks more experimental social therapies then the barbaric practices of the past. Shutter Island itself is a living breathing entity and a potentially massive threat.
Scorcesse is visually at the top of his game with this movie. In addition to the lavish reality, Shutter Island has some of the best dream sequences I’ve seen recently. The dreams in the movie actually seem like dreams instead of scenes that just didn’t really happen. They have a surrealism. Scorcesse brilliantly meshes together Teddy’s memory of liberating a Nazi concentration camp in World War II, memories of his wife (Michelle Williams) dying in an apartment fire with what he is learning of Rachael Solando – the mysterious mental patient he is there to find. It beautifully realizes the quality of dreams where you see someone and recognize them as someone else.
But almost as soon as it has begun the principle mystery is over and the movie, having written itself into a corner, makes several contortions to keep it afloat. In the 2nd act it starts to unravel and things start to not make sense. It’s here where it becomes obvious what the ending will be and that Scorcesse doesn’t have enough meat and drive in the set-up story to distract us from the increasingly obvious nature of what is really going on. By the time Teddy and Chuck sneak into Ward C to interrogate the arsonist responsible for his wife’s death, the movie has lost all narrative drive, quietly floating around rutter-less in an empty ocean. From there it gets more and more contrived.
Scorcesse does have guts with an unflinching camera set on horrific sights of dead children and atrocities. And DiCaprio is terribly great in this. He’s the kind of actor whose delivery of pain trascends the usual Oscar bait melodrama we usually see. He doesn’t express loss with sobs, but shows it as physical pain. It’s gut wrenching to watch.
Then there is the ending, literally explained to us with charts and graphs, in which the movie’s reality is redefined. I always try to look at a movie for what it is and chastize people who knock something for not being what they wanted it to be. Yes, I wanted to see a psychological horror movie or a classically styled film noir mystery. In the case of Shutter Island the movie that it sets up and ultimately isn’t is far more interesting and compelling than what it actually is. It’s a case of the red herring being better than the reality (also see this year’s Whiteout). Your ending reveal should either knock us off our seats with shock or elevate the story. Shutter does neither instead shrinking it to a more easily resolvable solution. The end of Shutter Island feels like a cheat.
For a brief scene toward the end Teddy meets Patricia Clarkson in a cave outlying the island and what they talk about is fascinating – absurd but theatrically interesting. The idea that once branded insane, everything you do is then called insane is more compelling than the tale of someone coping with loss Scorcesse is telling.
Shutter Island is visually beautiful and a technical wonder. It is well acted. It depicts the dream state better than any movie I’ve seen so far. And yet it completely and utterly collapses in the 2nd and third acts, jettisoning every interesting theatrical idea it had for a gimmicky ending more fitting of a (very grim) TV drama – the logistics of which are idiotic to impossible. It’s even more dissapointing than a movie that was bad to begin with.