(Paramount) Leonardo di Caprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, Max von Sydow, John Carroll Lynch, Jackie Earle Haley, Elias Koteas, Emily Mortimer, Ted Levine, Robin Bartlett. Directed by Martin Scorsese
Reality is a very subjective thing. We often see things as we want to see them and not as they truly are. That’s true of all of us to a certain extent, but every one of us usually does that only to a certain extent. When we can’t get past our own self-delusions, we are walking the fine line between sanity and insanity.
United States Marshals Teddy Daniels (Di Caprio) and Chuck Aule (Ruffalo) are on what seems to be a routine assignment. A dangerous prisoner, one Rachel Salondo has disappeared from her cell at the Ashecliffe Mental Hospital on Shutter Island, one of the Harbour Islands just off the coast of Boston. Their ferry emerges from the fog and approaches Shutter Island like an earlier freighter approached Skull Island, with palpable menace exuding from every crevice on the island.
They are met at the dock by Deputy Warden McPherson (Lynch) who relieves the marshals of their firearms, which the marshals submit to reluctantly. He escorts them to the main building where they are met by Dr. Cawley (Kingsley), the chief psychiatrist of the facility. Here are the most dangerous lunatics in the Commonwealth, who are so violent that no other hospital can handle them. It is said that there are asylums that have been decommissioned where the horrors of the past seem to live on; you can feel the decades of suffering in the very bricks of the building. Ashecliffe is a lot like that.
It is 1954 and the patients are probably better off in there, safe from the concerns of atom bombs and HUAC witch hunts. Teddy himself is haunted; as a soldier during the War, he helped liberate Dachau and the horrors he witnessed there have driven him to drink. Even worse, his beloved wife Dolores (Williams) died in a fire a few years back.
Teddy realizes early on that the staff is being far from co-operative but he has an agenda of his own. He is looking for a man named Andrew Laeddis (Koteas) who was the man who set the fire that ended his wife’s life. Teddy had followed Laeddis’ trail to the hospital where it disappeared.
From here Teddy realizes that something far more sinister is going on at Shutter Island. A hurricane has further isolated the island and the answers Teddy is looking for are as elusive as driftwood on the tide. To find them, he is going to have to dig deeper; and once he does, he might not like what he finds.
This movie is a serious mindf**k. It is unlike anything Scorsese has done before. There are elements of Hitchcock and film noir in the movie, and certainly turns of gothic horror. I wouldn’t have been overly surprised if Barnabas Collins had stepped out of the shadows of Ward C, where the most dangerous offenders are kept and where Teddy has to go to find Laeddis.
Di Caprio is at his best here, playing the tormented Teddy with grit and just a hint of madness. Teddy is our proxy in the movie and we see the events through his eyes, and Di Caprio makes sure those eyes are wide open and staring. He keeps us off-balance enough to make us susceptible to the twists and turns of the script which is based on a Dennis Lehane novel.
This is a fine cast and Scorsese gets great performances out of nearly all of them. Kingsley does quiet menace like nobody else in the business, and can seem sinister with a dismissive gesture. Von Sydow has a brief but memorable turn as a doctor who may have at one time worked for the Nazis. His verbal sparring session with Teddy is one of the better scenes in the movie.
There are some disturbing images here, and a good deal of male nudity. There is also a score from former member of The Band (and subject of Scorsese’s documentary The Last Waltz) Robbie Robertson that I think was meant to further put us off-balance but sadly doesn’t succeed; it comes off as intrusive and annoying. I think a subtler approach might have worked better.
I have to admit that some of the scenes here are really tough to watch on an emotional level, but I really don’t want to get into much more detail than that. In fact, the less I tell you about the movie the better you’ll be able to enjoy it. That allows you to experience the full effect of Scorsese’s first venture into the psychological thriller territory that Hitchcock once owned.
This won’t go down as one of Scorsese’s better efforts, although ironically it might wind up being his most profitable. The final scenes are ambiguous and meant to be that way. Some critics have assaulted the ending, but I think its part of Scorsese’s plan to let you draw your own conclusions as to the nature of Teddy’s reality. Certainly it will have you questioning your own perceptions as you leave the theater and that’s pretty impressive on its own.
REASONS TO GO: This movie plays with your head long after the credits roll. Di Caprio does some of the best work of his career. Scorsese conjures up a real air of foreboding.
REASONS TO STAY: The music was intrusive rather than supporting the overall mood. The building up of Andrew Laeddis as the most dangerous man in the facility doesn’t quite work.
FAMILY VALUES: Oh my God no. Dear God…what are you thinking? Kids? Shutter Island? NO! Seriously! NO!
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ted Levine and Patricia Clarkson starred in the short-lived TV series “Wonderland,” which was also set in a mental institution.
HOME OR THEATER: This is a movie that should be witnessed in the dark, preferably without a huge crowd. Home viewing would be more suitable.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: Valentine’s Day