Up until about a week ago, not much was known about “Shutter Island.” It’s the fourth collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, it’s based on a Dennis Lehane novel of the same name and its release date was spontaneously pushed back from October 2009 to February 2010.
Add to that, DiCaprio’s relative low profile and Scorsese’s appearance on “The Tonight Show,” in which he brought another trailer for the movie rather than an actual clip and the project became even more bizarre. Was the lack of information intentional to keep audiences and critics curious? Was the project a disaster that all parties hoped to distance themselves from as it quietly released to empty theaters and critical confusion? Was the movie adaptation of “Shutter Island” a delusion I cooked up after reading that “The Blind Side” was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar?
Thankfully, “Shutter Island” does exist and it is in fact a triumph. It’s easily the best release of 2010 so far and is a near-perfect thriller that is never cheap, never manipulative and rarely convenient. Scorsese adds emotional layer upon emotional layer to create a deeply sad and compelling story that’s mysteries are as much psychological as they are physical.
DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshal tasked with investigating the disappearance of an inmate on Shutter Island, a prison for the criminally insane. Daniels is joined by his new partner Chuck Aule (played by Mark Ruffalo) and from the moment they set foot on the titular island, things are amiss. Patients are lying or omitting key pieces of information during their interviews. Doctors aren’t cooperating and there’s an entire section of the island restricted to only the most violent offenders.
But there’s more wrong at Shutter Island than the doctors and inmates. Daniels himself is suffering from a dangerous combination of PTSD and grief over his murdered wife and being stranded on an island full of the criminally insane isn’t the most conducive environment for him to work through his problems.
DiCaprio gives a vulnerability to Daniels that turns what could have been a fairly hollow character into a likable source of empathy. Likewise, Ruffalo’s casual intellectualism provides both a foil and a kindred spirit to DiCaprio’s more impulsive, but equally intelligent character.
Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow are excellent in their supporting roles as Dr. Cawley and Dr. Naehring, two doctors with their own agendas and even Michelle Williams turns in a memorably troubling performance.
“Shutter Island” works as a both a detective movie and a psychological thriller because of Scorsese’s keen eye for detail and a methodical, but driven pace. There are moments of terror in the film, but they’re all legitimate scares and are as much constructed by the audience’s imagination as they are by the venerable director and his crew. At it’s best “Shutter Island” is Hitchcockian in it’s ability to frighten an audience with the prospect of what could happen, rather than what actually does.
The end result is a movie that is uncertain, but driven and masterfully acted and produced. Patrons expecting another quotable, visceral outing from Scorsese and DiCaprio will be disappointed, but those looking for a thoughtful, deeply rewarding thriller that doesn’t insult its audience or the source material, owe it to themselves to see “Shutter Island.” Probably twice, just for good measure.