The opening shot of a Boston ferry emerging from an impenetrable veil of fog as it makes it way toward a hostile, gothic-looking island proves to be an apt visual metaphor for what transpires in Shutter Island. From the moment the ferry appears and we hear the first strains of music, the audience is cued to stiffen in their seats. The tactic may seem a little heavy handed, but is very effective nonetheless. The audience knows at the get go, this trip to the island home of a Federal asylum/penitentiary for the criminally insane promises to be an unpleasant one. It is a search for the truth, and when it comes to light, it isn’t the one the protagonist had hoped to find.
The genius of Martin Scorsese’s film isn’t due to an original story or the much-discussed final twist. Neither the story nor the twist is original; we have seen films of this type before. No, its genius lies in the script’s subtext, the masterful execution by Scorsese, and the complex performances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Sir Ben Kinsley.
If ever a film required the talents of a deft director, Shutter Island is one. I don’t want to give anything away because the eventual revelation along with the heartbreaking conclusion is critical to the viewer’s enjoyment. Suffice it to say that in a story told by an unreliable narrator, what unfolds must be capable of two interpretations for the twist to work. Careful attention must be paid to the dialog, the nuances of the performances, composition of the shots, editing, and point-of-view. Thankfully, Scorsese is the right man for the job. In my humble opinion, there are a few moments in the film that don’t read as well as they could, but Scorsese’s hits far outweigh those few small misses.
It’s 1954, and U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) visit Ashecliffe Hospital on Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of violent patient Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer/Patricia Clarkson), a war widow who drowned her three children yet remains blissfully unaware of that fact. But something is wrong. How is it that in a maximum security institution, no one saw her leave? To complicate matters, a violent storm is approaching the island which threatens to unleash chaos in an already unstable, chaotic environment. How could the barefooted Rachel navigate the inhospitable and harsh terrain of the island and elude capture by the hospital guards? Throughout the investigation, hospital administrator Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley, looking a little like an older Aleister Crowley) proves uncooperative and his attitude heightens the suspicions of the already mistrustful Daniels.
Shutter Island is rich with vivid images and symbols associated with critical events in the back stories of both Daniels and Solando. As the investigation progresses and Daniels’ painful personal memories intrude, their personal histories intertwine in his dreams. Scorsese weaves these images into a nightmarish tapestry for the dream sequences which are rife with poignancy and horrific meaning.
Kudos to DiCaprio who found an inroad for portraying Daniels, a deeply troubled man who has suffered more than his fair share of violence and trauma — from his war time experiences to the death of his much beloved wife Dolores (played to perfection by Michelle Williams whose character appears to Daniels as a kind of spirit guide). As Dr. Cawley, Kingsley projects an air of secretiveness and deceit and later, as time goes on, one of sympathy. And Patricia Clarkson delivers a stunning performance in her brief scenes as the “real” Solando.
Shutter Island explores the tensions and anxieties that characterized 1950s America, an era when postwar malaise, the Cold War, HUAC, paranoia, and conspiracy theories held sway. Daniels is convinced that Ashecliffe is involved in a government-sponsored conspiracy, to what purpose he’s not sure. But the problem with conspiracy theories is that as they are laid out, the details become increasingly convoluted and hard to believe. Is Daniels off the mark? The suspense will keep viewers glued to their seats.
The inspired soundtrack comprised of modern classical pieces — selected by Robbie Robertson — work in concert with the script and Scorsese’ direction to create an absorbing mystery/drama that is as tense and disturbing as it is oddly tender. Shutter Island emerges as one of 2010’s must-see films.