Martin Scorsese’s SHUTTER ISLAND
is a bit of a mixed bag. First of all, it’s a tour-de force for Leonardo DiCaprio. His riveting performance is the best reason to see the film. The range of emotions that he must show -often with little or no transition in between -and the pure physicality of the role provide a showcase for his considerable ability. A strong cast supports him, but it is his film. His performance carries the viewer through the often confusing twists and turns in the plot. In fact, even though the film is a mystery/thriller, there are a few too many red herrings which, combined with the just-under-three- hour length of the film, can be frustrating.
Visually, the film is right on target. From a film noir-ish beginning, the viewer follows federal marshall Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to the appropriately stark and threatening Shutter Island, the location of the institution for the criminally insane where the majority of the story unfolds. While investigating the seemingly impossible disappearance of a patient from this maximum security facility, they encounter mysterious, possibly sinister, doctors (Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow), and wander through dark hallways complete with dripping water pipes, encounter filthy cells in the infamous Ward C for the most dangerous patients, brave steep cliffs to try to reach a lighthouse where odious “experiments” are rumored to take place, and even end up trapped during a storm in a mausoleum in the island’s ultra-creepy cemetery. The film succeeds visually far more than it does as a narrative.
This is Scorsese, so there is beaucoup blood , and corpses, too. This film is not for the faint-hearted. Phobias rule on Shutter Island. Just about every phobia you can think of pops up - water, heights, rats, Nazis, the dark, dead bodies, needles, blood, germs, small spaces, storms, and even communists (after all, the film takes place in 1954). Paranoia reigns. Well, it is a mental institution. The audience is moved to ask who is really delusional, and who else may be the subject(s) of the delusions. The problem is that the film is too long, and the story line is too convoluted. As it staggered to an end, I felt manipulated.
Besides DiCaprio, there are a number of stand-out performances. Michelle Williams does a fine job as DiCaprio’s wife, already deceased before the film begins. She appears mainly in dream sequences, and then in flashback. Appealing at first, her character takes a much darker turn later in the plot. Max von Sydow projects just the right amount of veiled threat as a psychiatrist who may or may not have been a death camp doctor in Nazi Germany. Ben Kingsley gives an appropriately quirky performance as the doctor who summoned the marshalls to Shutter Island in the first place. He alternates between competent, professional demeanor and suggested neuroses so that you never know whether or not he can be trusted. A particular stand-out in a small role is Jackie Earle Haley who plays one of the Ward C inmates. Physically unrecognizable (great make-up!) as he agonizes in his cell, his character brings DiCaprio’s character’s guilt to a head and propels the story toward resolution. Well, a resolution of sorts. When it is finally revealed, it feels contrived and really strains credibility. I had to work very hard to “willingly suspend disbelief”.
Overall, however, the actors’ performances and the dead-on visual styling of the film recommend more than the weaknesses detract. It’s worth seeing on the big screen for its dramatic setting, and you’ll be glad that DiCaprio and Ruffalo are riding that ferry through the fog to Shutter Island and not you!