If Edgar Allan Poe were alive, he’d be an executive producer of Shutter Island. Director Martin Scorsese (The Departed), himself a certified master of cinematic suspense, is also a lover/historian of film. Cinema geeks can amuse themselves for hours tracing Scorsese’s homages in Shutter Island, including those to Val Lewton, Alfred Hitchcock, and a long line of other horror guiding spirits — who all lead back to the master of the unraveling heartbeat and the step-by-step realization of unutterable horror.
Like other recent good films (Up in the Air, Inglourious Basterds, District Nine, to name a few), Shutter Island defies genre categorization. In essence, it’s a thrilling hybrid — a complex psychological thriller and social commentary, mantled in the trappings of ghosts and haunted hallways. It even has enough elements of the Hero’s Journey — secret caves, a fortunetelling witch (the wonderful Patricia Clarkson), an evil tower, and chained fiends — to thrill myth guru Joseph Campbell.
With all these vivid storytelling threads weaving through it, Shutter Island is so rich, a single viewing can’t possibly do it justice. Especially with the never-ending plot twists. Like The Sixth Sense, you’re shocked at the ending and then you have fun going back through the film and admitting that all the clues really were there. Adapting Dennis Lehane’s masterpiece novel about 1950s paranoia, the film teeters on the smashing crosscurrents of reality and delusion and never spends one scene in quiet waters.
Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a U.S. Marshal sent to a hospital for the criminally insane located on an inaccessible rocky island off the coast of Massachusetts to locate an escaped patient. He tells his new partner, Chuck (the stalwart Mark Ruffalo), that he recently lost his wife in an apartment fire. Both men are war veterans, whose motto in life now seems to be “never back down.”
Despite the lack of cooperation from the hospital’s director, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley, the mater of the menacing smile), Teddy is determined to find the missing patient, who happens to be a child murderess. When Teddy meets the other doctor on staff, Dr. Naehring (a gleefully ominous Max von Sydow), the doctor’s Nazi demeanor triggers Teddy’s horrible memories of his war-time service as one of the American soldiers who liberated the concentration camp at Dachau. As if PTSD flashbacks weren’t bad enough, Teddy suffers from migraines, which cause hallucinations in which his beloved wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams, glorious in her hausfrau print dress), appears to him.
A Level 5 hurricane rages, in the classic Gothic manner of Nature outside reflecting the turmoil within. Tree trunks fall, the electric generator fails, the patients break out of their cells and run amok. Everywhere is chaos and Teddy seems to attract it. With each terrifying scene — down the rocky cliffs, up the sinister lighthouse, through the rat infested tunnels, past the cages of naked patients, warding off the armed guards, fighting off hypodermic needles — Teddy becomes convinced that he has stumbled upon a diabolical anti-American plot.
He is warned that “he will never leave the island alive.” That he is a “rat in a maze.” Has he been slipped hallucinogenic drugs? Does the hospital hide a horrifying conspiracy? Has he struggled so hard to be a savior only to end up as a victim?
Leonardo DiCaprio carries every scene of the movie. His character changes, from cynical lawman to avenging crusader to hardened realist, are remarkable to see. He seems to encapsulate within himself the angst of the Cold War age — the reliance on rose-colored glasses to ward off reality and then the choice of violence as the ultimate solution. He is perfect for the part and it is certainly the best role of his career.
It’s a mind-bender, a genre breaker, a pulsating suspense ride and a thoughtful musing on how close human beings can get to becoming monsters — do see Shutter Island more than once.