Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Ben Kingsley, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams
Release date: February 19, 2010
What makes a movie great? Is it meeting the expectation of greatness? Can a movie be viewed solely on its own merit anymore without comparing it to something else you saw that you liked better or worse, or is that what watching and understanding movies is all about? I thought about that a lot after seeing Shutter Island.
It is in our nature to view a movie not only on its own merit but comparatively against like sources. Martin Scorsese has made a lot of brilliant movies but is it fair to always compare each new one to the classics he has already made? His latest film will make you rethink that process. It is the type of film that will make you forget his stable of gangster movies that most people would try to define him by. If you have ever wondered what a Scorsese horror film would look like, Shutter Island is the answer.
The movie opens as two U.S. Marshals, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), arrive on Shutter Island. They have been invited to Ashecliffe Hospital to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), a patient at the facility. Their arrival doesn’t seem to be met with much enthusiasm. The staff is less than cooperative, the hospital’s chief psychiatrist Dr. John Crawley (Sir Ben Kingsley) offers feigned assistance and right away the case seems steeped in impossibility. She was locked in her room, no one saw her leave, and there are no signs of exit. Not to mention they are on an island in the middle of a hurricane.
As Teddy begins to investigate, the walls start closing in on him. He convinces himself that there is more going on than a missing patient -– if she was ever missing to begin with. Then he works on convincing everyone else. Whether these quiet accusations are actually happening or they are just a product of his increasingly paranoid state is better left for you to decide.
This is a smart movie that should really be appreciated on multiple levels. Shutter Island isn’t a whodunit. It isn’t a movie that can be ruined by knowing what happens to who and when. Yes, there are twists and yes, there is a payoff, but that should hardly constitute the singular reason for enjoyment. Shutter Island is film noir, a ghost story, and a psychological thriller. It works as all of these things in concert with no one piece taking center stage. The direction and the film’s performances effortlessly keep the film from being crushed by the weight of the clichés it avoids scene after scene.
DiCaprio, in his fourth collaboration with Scorsese, has officially erased the memory of his Teen Beat covers of more than a decade ago. I had doubts that he could pull of a character with as much life experience as was required, but he delivers a performance full of raw emotion. He embodies Teddy’s obsession with a nuanced range. While DiCaprio’s performance may be the driving force of the movie, it is not exclusive to him alone. Even characters that only pop up for a couple minutes at a time carry more weight than their screen time should warrant. Max von Sydow as one of the hospital’s top doctors, Jackie Earle Haley as a tormented patient, Michelle Williams as Teddy’s wife, Ted Levine as the warden of the hospital; all could have easily been written off as caricatures if it weren’t for the environment they were allowed to exist within.
Scorsese anchors a story that in someone else’s hands would have been all over the place. There is something to be said for forty years of practice. Rather than relying on a clutter of trademarks, he is wise enough to allow himself the freedom to step outside his tendencies and create new ones. Scorsese has long since perfected the art of choosing the perfect music to accompany his movies. With Shutter Island, he uses music -– not just loud sounds out of nowhere, but specifically chosen arrangements -– to create mood. He uses that to create atmosphere, utilized as more of a character than a simple set piece. All of these things are calculated measures to ensure the perfect setting is in place before a single relevant line of dialogue has been spoken.
For all of the accusations of a bait and switch ending I have heard, it really isn’t much of a surprise. There’s no cheating or sleight of hand. Watch it twice (I did) and you’ll see that every scene is designed to lead you down one path or other and is constructed with equal parts prognostication and ambiguity. You are not sure if Teddy may be on to something or if he is simply allowing his delusions to control him into seeing what he wants.
With a career spanning almost a half century, Scorsese has earned the right to throw us for a loop with his filmmaking choices. He has earned the right to defy our expectations by making something outside of what some would considered his comfort zone. He earned it by doing exactly that many times over his career. Here, he perfects it by making it look easy.
And there’s the rub.