Shutter Island (United States, 2010)

February 18, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Shutter Island Poster

Spoiler Alert: Although every effort has been made to limit the revelations in this review, it's difficult to provide a coherent discussion of Shutter Island without giving away something, so readers are hereby placed on alert. If you're familiar with the book, however, there's no reason to stop hereā€¦

What's wrong with Shutter Island? This has been the question ever since Paramount Pictures elected to move the Martin Scorsese-directed thriller from its comfortable pre-Oscar position to the wastelands of February. It turns out that there's nothing wrong with Shutter Island - except perhaps that it's not Oscar worthy material. An atmospheric mind-fuck of a thriller, this movie delights in playing games with the audience's perceptions and has been crafted with such competence that it rises above the somewhat generic storyline that forms the basis of Dennis Lehane's novel. The strength of the film, like the book, is that it never allows the viewer to feel comfortable with what he is watching. That's because Shutter Island is presented from the perspective of an unreliable narrator and, as such, the lines between fantasy and reality sometimes blur so strongly that it's easy to become unanchored in trying to distinguish between what's real and what isn't. A case can be made that the movie is so enamored with this aspect of its approach that it fails to connect on an emotional level. Shutter Island addresses some powerful, disturbing concepts but, despite effective performances by the leads, the movie's psychological impact is minimal. It doesn't pack the powerhouse punch one has come to expect from Scorsese. Still, the director's consummate skill has lifted what might otherwise be a middling endeavor into something compellingly watchable. It's another Cape Fear.

The time is 1954, with the Cold War and its associated paranoia on the rise and the black magic of Nazi Germany still not entirely dispelled. The place is Shutter Island, a forbidding outcropping off the New England coast. Shutter Island houses Ashecliffe Hospital, an asylum for the criminally insane. Even more escape-proof than Alcatraz, Shutter Island virtually guarantees that the only ways out are through an officially sanctioned release or as a victim of the sea and the rocks it pummels. Federal marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), arrive on blustery early autumn day to investigate the disappearance of a prisoner, Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), who has vanished without a trace. Her doctors, Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Naehring (Max von Sydow), are less than open about what's going on behind-the-scenes on the island, and their unhelpfulness arouses Teddy's suspicions that all is not what it appears to be. Clues lead him to believe he's not merely investigating the disappearance of one woman but that he has stumbled upon experimentation exported from Germany and being used to develop perfect Cold Warriors.

From a strictly narrative standpoint, Shutter Island reflects its source material. The movie is unlike either of the recent Lehane adaptations, Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone, in that it's more gothic and atmospheric and divorced from the realities of modern tragedy. Shutter Island's position as a period piece allows Scorsese's stylized perspective to work effectively. He borrows liberally from film noir and conventional horror, synthesizing a result that at times recalls the way in which Stanley Kubrick approached The Shining. It's unlikely any other director would have made Shutter Island in quite the same way. The place is a character. The stormy weather is a character. Even the loud, thunderous music is a character.

We recognize from the beginning that something is "off." Without going into details which might spell out too many of the narrative's detours, I can say that Scorsese conveys the influence of an unreliable narrator without explicitly revealing where the perspective diverges from an objective view of events. As a result, we can never fully trust what we're seeing. In most movies, it's an easy enough task to differentiate between dream sequences, flashbacks, and concrete reality. These elements are present in Shutter Island, but the lines between them blur. Only in retrospect is it possible to delineate them.

The problem with the film (to the extent that it is a problem) is that the central tragedies of Teddy's character are emotionally muted. They begin (in flashback) with his reaction to the concentration camp at Dachau where he arrives as a member of the liberating force and continue to a more recent event: the death of his beloved wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) in a fire. He is a tortured, haunted man, and those things only begin to reveal the demons that claw at his soul. Yet, perhaps because the structure necessitates this, Scorsese keeps the viewer at arm's-length. We observe the character from a distance and never empathize with him. We acknowledge his pain but don't experience it alongside him. For all that the craft of Shutter Island eclipses that of Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone, its emotional impact is inferior.

DiCaprio, who has become Scorsese's go-to actor in the post-DeNiro era, turns in another strong, mature performance. In the immediate wake of Titanic, DiCaprio allowed himself to cash in a little on his success but, over the years, he has gravitated more toward prestige projects working for respected directors (Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, Same Mendes, Edward Zwick). Had Shutter Island maintained its original late-2009 release date, DiCaprio would have been in the running for a Lead Actor Oscar nomination. He is ably supported by screen legends Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow, who use their reputations to good effect. Mark Ruffalo is a little bland, but his character doesn't have much to do. The rest of the cast is comprised of accomplished character actors: Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch, Elias Koteas. (Contrary to a surprisingly long-legged rumor that's making the Internet rounds, DeNiro does not make an appearance.)

Shutter Island is satisfying in ways that February movies often are not. Like all solid thrillers, it engages while challenging the intellect. Its puzzle, while not as twisty as some, is nevertheless enticing to piece together. Yet it's easy to understand Paramount's reluctance to release the movie in the thick of the Oscar season because it's not really an awards-caliber movie. Shutter Island is enjoyable in part because of the way Scorsese approaches the material, but it is ultimately nothing more than a well-made genre effort. Relieved of the weight of Oscar expectations, perhaps Shutter Island will open up to audiences who view Scorsese as being too "artistic." After all, this production is many things, but pretentious is not among them.

Shutter Island (United States, 2010)

Run Time: 2:18
U.S. Release Date: 2010-02-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1