From Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese, and based on the best-selling thriller by Dennis Lehane, comes “Shutter Island,” a tale of haunting mystery and psychological suspense that unfolds on a fortress-like island housing a hospital for the criminally insane.
The year is 1954, during the height of the Cold War, when U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are summoned to Shutter Island by head physician Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) to investigate the implausible disappearance of multiple murderess Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer) from a locked room within the impenetrable Ashecliffe Hospital. Surrounded by probing psychiatrists and dangerously psychopathic patients on the remote, windswept isle, they arrive at an eerie, volatile atmosphere that suggests nothing is quite what it seems.
With a horrendous hurricane bearing down on them, the investigation moves rapidly. There are hints and rumors of dark conspiracies, sordid medical experiments, repressive mind control, secret wards, perhaps even a hint of the supernatural, but elusive proof. Moving in the shadows of a hospital haunted by the terrible deeds of its slippery inhabitants and the unknown agendas of its equally ingenious doctors, Teddy begins to sense that the deeper he pursues the investigation, the more he will be forced to confront some of his most profound and devastating fears. Then he realizes that he may never leave the island alive.
At the heart of “Shutter Island’s” suspense and mounting fear is the shattering experience of Teddy Daniels, the hard-bitten war veteran and savvy U.S. Marshal who arrives at the island hospital to investigate the disappearance of a killer, only to slide deeper and deeper into an abyss of dizzying riddles, haunted memories and unrelenting fear. As his investigation runs into one obstacle after another, Teddy has reason to believe he is being manipulated, watched, perhaps drugged and pushed to the dark, indistinct edges of his own sanity. Perhaps he is being warned away from getting at the larger truth of Shutter Island, or drawn into a horrific experiment, but there is clearly a hidden agenda tying Teddy to this impenetrable place.
Teddy’s descent into madness is portrayed brilliantly through the flashback and dream sequences of him alongside his dead wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), in which we get a glimpse into the horrific events that have made Teddy the man he is. Flashbacks to scenes of corpses in concentration camps and Nazi executions send chills down the spine with carefully edited cutaways from flashback to modern day. Leonardo DiCaprio again gives an inspired performance that can be partially credited to the guiding wisdom of Scorsese. After working together on three films, it’s clear that these two have created an actor/director relationship seen rarely in Hollywood. DiCaprio masterfully embodies his character’s mental confusion and tortured past. The normally baby-faced DiCaprio is as ragged and beat down as any real police officer in the film. He physically and emotionally captures Teddy to the tee.
“Shutter Island” is a departure from Martin Scorsese’s well-known style of filmmaking; one could see the film and easily forget that he was the mastermind behind it. Upon seeing the film, it’s impossible not to discuss the cinematography and art direction, two of the elements that make the film such a success. Much like in Scorsese’s past films, “The Aviator” and “Gangs of New York,” the sets and costumes are completely authentic down to every last stitch. It is clear that Scorsese has considered every last detail of this film before adding his stamp of approval. His adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel also stays remarkably true to its source: identical lines of dialogue are lifted from the book into the film. While this could be problematic or obvious in the hands of an amateur, Scorsese integrates the action and dialogue from the novel into the film with subtlety. Lehane’s dialogue is also so natural and realistic that it translates impeccably to the big screen. People normally complain that films adapted from novels can never live up to their source, but in this case the film only enhances the essence of Lehane’s novel – providing viewers with the exact images set in the book.
This kind of mysterious thriller is something Scorsese has never tackled before on such a complete scale, but he pulls off the task of crafting a genuinely thought-provoking and visually stunning psychological thriller. There are touches of Scorsese’s brilliance throughout the film: a wisp of smoke wafting through the air, a dying match held up to the bars of a prisoner’s cage, the persistent dripping of rainwater, the stifling gray void of the sky before a storm, or the echoes of voices and screams as they travel eerily down asylum corridors.
It’s the infinitesimal details like these that make the film such a visual stunner. The richness of the blue and gray hues pervades the film’s every second, almost smothering viewers with the thickness of the fog and rain. The color scheme changes most drastically during Teddy’s dream and flashback sequences, in which everything is more vibrant, showing how Teddy’s real life pales in comparison to his imagined past. Every slight gesture or facial expression made by the actors foretells the action that is soon to come and mirrors the internal chaos within all of the characters in this twisted plot.
Scorsese has managed to master the art of the plot twist with “Shutter Island,” where each ending leaves viewers feeling genuinely surprised and curious, rather than trapped in a hackneyed cliché used by so many other directors. He managed to create a setting that is not only a physical place for the action to occur, but is also a representation of the disturbing past of Ashecliffe Hospital and its residents.
As Scorsese himself said, “The idea was to come up with a way of reflecting a state of mind in the lighting, the tone of the picture and the island itself … with “Shutter Island,” a state of mind had to be conveyed in every frame. We had to create a place that was more than just a setting … There is a visual sense of not understanding what’s going on around you, who’s really in charge, who’s in control.” The dark, Gothic structures reminiscent of ancient fortresses are as important to the plot and mood of the film as the central characters are. As Teddy is trapped within the labyrinthine structure of the island and its institutions, the island itself seems to be intent on ripping him to shreds, whether by the lashing winds of a hurricane or through the jagged stony cliffs lining the shore. The deeper he delves into the mysterious history of Ashecliffe the more volatile his surroundings become; it is as if nature itself is determined to destroy him before he discovers the truth.
“Shutter Island” is not the type of film one would expect from Martin Scorsese. It’s more than just a mystery or a thriller; it blends visual elements of classic horror and thriller films with the masterful acting of great dramas, and the end result is something completely unexpected.