“Shutter Island” disguises itself as a genre exercise; it’s a procedural, a haunted castle flick, a psychological drama. But underneath all that, it is one of the most challenging and complicated films I’ve seen in a long time. When I first saw the trailer, I was puzzled that Martin Scorsese would take on a film about the investigation of an escaped patient from an Alcatraz-like mental facility; it’s not the kind of movie he usually makes. Having seen the movie, I understand why he said yes to the project. Based on a book by Dennis Lehane (who also wrote the books behind “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone,”) it’s an incredibly difficult story to bring to the screen, and Scorsese relished the challenge, and rose to it. “Shutter Island” is an oddly hidden gem of a film, and shows off the immense talent and skill of its director– if you know where to look.
The best advice I can give you regarding this movie is to see it twice. It contains a big twist at the end which both explains and justifies everything that comes before it, and you need to see it a second time to appreciate all that it explains and justifies. (Sometimes I think filmmakers make movies with twist endings just to torture critics. We’re not supposed to give away the big surprise, but the whole movie revolves around the Big Surprise, so it’s nearly impossible talk about the movie in any meaningful way. Forgive me if this review sounds like it’s written through clenched teeth.)
Leonardo DiCaprio plays a U.S. Marshal sent to investigate the mysterious disappearance of mental patient Emily Mortimer at a mental institution for the criminally insane. Comic book fans will see echoes of Arkham Asylum in Shutter Island; nobody here is innocent, or responsible for their actions, which are uniformly gruesome. The most reasonable of the patients killed her husband with an axe after thirty years of infidelity; the escaped patient—who managed to escape from a locked, windowless cell without a trace—drowned her three children and then propped them up at the dinner table and waited for her husband to come home.
But not everything here is quite what it seems. The head pychiatrist, played with creepy charm by Ben Kingsley, seems to have a hidden agenda, despite all his talk about compassion and “connecting” with his patients. Max Von Sydow appears briefly and menacingly, analyzing DiCaprio’s defense mechanisms and talking about “men of violence.” He might as well be talking about the warden, who seems at least as crazy and dangerous as the patients; “if I were to sink my teeth into your eyeball right now, would you be able to stop me before I blinded you?” he asks the Marshal, while escorting him around the island.
DiCaprio’s got some demons of his own to wrestle with; his wife was killed in an apartment fire, and she haunts his dreams. So do images of the concentration camp at Dachau, which he participated in liberating as a soldier in World War II. “Shutter Island” bears a theme often found in Scorsese films; the psychological scarring of men’s souls after acts of war and violence. Turns out DiCaprio has a few scores to settle, and may have taken the Shutter Island case for personal reasons.
So when a hurricane strikes the island and all the cell doors fly open, you know we’re in for a heck of a ride. Homicidal patients run amok; homicidal guards chase them down. DiCaprio and his partner, played by Mark Ruffalo, hide out in a sepulchre to get out of the rain. The escaped patient reappears and returns docilely to her cell, and so the case is solved. Except that now Ruffalo has disappeared, and Kingsley denies that he ever existed at all, and the crazies keep telling DiCaprio that he’ll never leave the island. And that’s just the beginning. “Shutter Island” twists and turns upon itself, and dares you to guess what the Big Secret is. Maybe you will. I didn’t.
Any movie with a twist ending that is worth its salt buries clues within itself about its big surprise; sometimes (think “The Sixth Sense”) the movie even brings those clues back at the moment of the Reveal to show you what you missed. I call these Forehead-Slapping Moments. On a second viewing, you slap your forehead and cry, “how did I NOT see that the first time through!” Any movie without these buried clues doesn’t have a Surprise Ending, it has a Stupid Ending. This is an unbreakable rule about thrillers; the audience must be warned of what’s coming, even if the warnings are subtle and hidden.
In “Shutter Island,” however, the buried clues aren’t in the movie; they are the movie. The very texture of “Shutter Island’s” first two hours is the biggest, most obvious, most cleverly hidden-in-plain-sight clue about the Big Twist. There are elements of “Shutter Island” that feel like shoddy filmmaking the first time through. Once you know the secret, you will recognize these elements as very intentional, and absolutely appropriate, choices made by Scorsese. It’s a risky move, and as a result, a lot of people, and a lot of critics, are missing the point. “Shutter Island” hasn’t been reviewed very kindly up to this point, but I think, given time to be watched and re-watched, it will be recognized as the work of a great talent. It is another solid film from Scorsese, an impressive achievement, and perhaps his most challenging, complicated film to date. You should see it. At least twice.