Shutter Island (2010)
***½ out of 5
‘Don’t you get it? You’re a rat in maze’ snarls a bloodied, bruised and beaten rodent-looking man (Jackie Earle Haley) at US Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo Di Caprio). The man, George Noyce, is a patient at the Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane on Shutter Island, where Daniels has travelled with partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the Houdini-esque disappearance of another patient. The setting is 1950s America. The film is Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island and it marks a steady return to form for the nation’s greatest living filmmaker.
It is also Scorsese’s fourth successive collaboration with Di Caprio and, following on from the so-so The Departed, is their best yet (thankfully, we are gradually moving further and further away from the soulless disappointment of Gangs of New York). Marty’s muse gives his most versatile performance and masks a raging pain that we learn stems from the death of his character’s wife and his experiences of the Second World War; in particular being one of the soldiers to liberate the Dachau concentration camp. Both events are gradually unravelled to us in a number of exquisite dream and memory sequences, and provide us with the film’s most visually striking moments. That the devastation of the holocaust should be used in such a way however, is actually somewhat troubling and marks a rare (and surely unmeant) moment of naivety from the director.
One of the more tasteful flashbacks, in which Daniels enters a Nazi Officer’s room, is however quintessentially Scorsesian, as is a more emotionally poignant moment as Teddy and his wife share a disintegrating embrace. Yet the master is not too proud to pay homage to other cinematic greats whose names have been equally ‘adjective-fied’, such as Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick; although admittedly once or twice it is homage teetering on the brink of pilferage. References to Psycho, North by Northwest and Vertigo are all in there, as are nods to The Shining and even Scorsese’s own Cape Fear. The film also bares a strong affinity to the hard-boiled film noir movies of the 1940s and 50s, particularly in the form of Mark Ruffalo’s Chuck, a strong but silent type of the same stock as Dana Andrews or Alan Ladd.
The missing patient that he and Teddy are charged with finding is Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), who was brought to the Island after drowning her three children. The result of this is her complete and utter denial of these events and her overriding belief that she is still living at home with them. The man who presides over Ashecliffe with a deity like dominance is the cabalistic Dr Cawley, played with marvellous subtlety by Sir Ben Kingsley. Cawley informs the two cops that he prefers to use more cathartic forms of treatment with his patients, as opposed to the widely accepted yet barbaric methods of electrolysis and lobotomies.
One such fan of these means however is Cawley’s colleague, Dr Naehring (Max von Sydow). In spite of his adapted accent, the fact that Naehring is German doesn’t go unnoticed by Teddy. He smells a rat. Or several. This equally conjures thoughts in both his mind and ours, of Nazi experimentations and tests on prisoners of their concentration camps. Is something similar happening at Ashecliffe?
Teddy too has his secrets. He reveals to Chuck that he pleaded to be assigned to this case as a way of getting closer to Andrew Laeddis, the man responsible for his wife’s death, who was last known to be a patient on the Island. However, with his efforts seemingly thwarted at every corner, Teddy decides to return to the mainland only for a viscous storm to brew and leave him grounded. As it turns out, it may not only be the weather that conspires to prevent him from leaving.
Shutter Island is adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name. Lehane, who also has writing credits on three episodes of HBO’s masterful epic series The Wire, has an impressive track record in terms of cinematic conversions, with both Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone recently re-imagined on celluloid. The screenplay however was written by Laeta Kalogridis, whose most notable previous work includes Oliver Stone’s sprawlingly sloppy and ill-fated Alexander. Fortunately this time however, Kalogridis’ script is tighter and works just fine.
The film’s main triumph though comes, firstly, from Scorsese and his supreme skill and style as a filmmaker – a majestic control that few can claim, and perhaps none for so long a period. Secondly, a superb ensemble cast. Di Caprio and Kingsley are, as mentioned, the star turns, but equally Jackie Earle Haley threatens to steal the show in an unfortunately small role, whilst both Mortimer, and Michelle Williams as Teddy’s deceased wife, are again regrettably underused.
When a film is marketed as a mystery-horror-thriller, audiences often (rightly) expect a mind-boggling twist ending. Yet if a film, as is the case with Shutter Island, has been twirling, tilting, turning, tipping and twisting from its opening minutes, as though the Island were in fact set inside a cinematic snow globe, then the final reveal is arguably less important; it is more about the journey, how you got there. So when Shutter Island’s so-called ‘big twist’ finally arrives, on the back of numerous other twists and turns, one could be forgiven for feeling lost in a snow globe or, perhaps, like Teddy, a rat in a maze. Yet the journey there is quite often mesmeric and mostly engrossing.