You know the kind of thriller that works only at surface value, skirts cliché at every turn, keeps stringing you along, and—in the end—hinges 100 percent on whether you buy the twist ending or not?
“Shutter Island” is not that kind of thriller.
Directed by Martin Scorsese, “Shutter Island” has enough gothic atmosphere, deep emotional scar tissue, and surreal reality-shifting to be anything but a plot-driven thriller. The film feels like a straight up gothic horror picture; a sort of highbrow-yet-grotesque modern-day Val Lewton B-movie.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshal sent to a mysterious, island-bound mental hospital for the criminally insane to find a murderous inmate who has vanished into thin air. Teddy has problems of his own, we soon learn, since he suffers from hallucinations of his wife’s death at the hands of an arsonist and crippling flashbacks to his time as a World War II vet, where he witnessed the Nazi war camp atrocities at Dachau.
As I stated before, all is not plot-driven in “Shutter Island,” adapted by Laeta Kalogridis from the Dennis Lehane novel. There are layers and layers of depth underneath what is essentially a garden-variety thriller storyline.
The ominous asylum and impending hurricane on the island reflect the deteriorating mental state of the film’s main character, while Teddy’s new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) serves as a sounding board for his increasingly paranoid thoughts. The interesting thing is, everything we see onscreen seems to reaffirm Teddy’s wildest accusations.
Like the last two Scorsese films he starred in (“The Aviator,” “The Departed”) DiCaprio is a walking bundle of nerves, eventually frazzled to the limit. Yet as surreal and obtuse as his situation gets, DiCaprio grounds Teddy in something real—a difficult task considering the stakes for his character.
Thrillers invariably go off the rails when things start happening that are far too convenient. However, in this film, those moments beg for reconsideration. “Shutter Island” is in the hands of Scorsese and so many other master craftsmen that it’s a kind of nonstop sordid cinematic bliss—albeit one that’s constantly on the verge of sinking into the choppy ocean that threatens its shores.
The absurdist sequences are some of the movie’s best, as Scorsese uses non-matching cuts and subtle CGI effects to completely disorient the viewer. Robert Richardson’s color-rich cinematography and Dante Ferretti’s elaborate production design further sell the madhouse concept both in and out of Teddy’s mind.
A patched together score by Robbie Robertson of various bombastic modern classical pieces from the likes of Ingram Marshall, John Cage, and Krzysztof Penderecki (whose music filled “The Shining”) go a long way towards setting the eerie mood.
Alas, there is a twist. But can it really be considered a twist if you can see it coming in the first reel? It’s almost as if the big reveal is actually a foregone conclusion and Scorsese knows it. When it finally comes, it allows you to catch your breath. It feels real. It makes sense because you knew it deep down all along.
Rather than play up any preconceived shock value inherent to the script, the ending plays like a grand tragedy. Then Scorsese gives the audience plenty of time for it to sink in as he plays out the underlying emotional truth of the whole sordid affair.
People who enjoy the guessing game of twisty thrillers and have no patience for deep psychological studies might be pissed off and alienated by “Shutter Island.” I like my horror movies to be full of dread and foreboding. This film has more of that in its opening scene than can be found in all of the generic “scares” of last weekend’s “The Wolfman.”
I’ve seen “Shutter Island” only once, but my first impression is that it will only deepen upon further viewings. That’s something you can’t say about the movies that pass for mainstream thriller fare these days.