WARNING – this review may contain spoilers!!
Our first view of Shutter Island is through an approaching storm, remote island off Boston harbor, with a crumbling fortress, ruined and abandoned buildings, and a lighthouse. There is a strong sense of “Abandon Hope All Ye who Enter Here” as the US marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) hand over their weapons and the metal doors close behind them! They have been sent to the island, a facility for the criminally insane, to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a child murderer Rachel (Emily Mortimer) from her locked room.
That all is not as simple as it seems slowly becomes clear, as the film moves from horror to thriller to psychological puzzle. The medical director Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley at his beady eyed sinister best) seems to be hiding more than he reveals to the marshals, and his colleague Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sydow) causes Teddy to have flashbacks to the Allied liberation of Dachau and piles of bodies lying around that stare at him with accusing eyes. Teddy has fierce migraines, brought on by a fear of large bodies of water, and by the sense of despair from having lost his wife (Dolores – played by Michelle Williams) to a fire set by a mysterious scarred pyromaniac, Laeddis.
Scorsese sets up the film as a thriller in a most macabre setting. There are abandoned buildings, desolate graveyards and a lighthouse where experimentation on human brains may be afoot. A maximum security Block C, that is out of classic horror films, is given a twist of the surreal by an almost Escher like metal staircase. One has a flashback to the room Teddy came out of on the ferry – why did it have handcuffs upon handcuffs dangling from the ceiling? Teddy’s flashbacks also begin to mix up personalities including children from the concentration camp, his wife, and the missing (and then mysteriously found) Rachel.
The hero starts out with some minor weaknesses but an abiding sense of duty. Or does he? As Dr. Cauley takes us through the logic of what he is trying, you still wonder and remember the classic line from the Mel Gibson movie “I’m only paranoid because they want me dead!” What if it is all a big con? Then as the blinkers seemingly fall from Teddy’s eyes, you feel a sense of loss as the hero turns into a deeply flawed and troubled man, but such is the nature of noir cinema. You cannot have knights in shining armor. And then in another twist we hear Teddy say to Chuck “I wonder, is it better to live like a monster, or die a good man” and suddenly we have again a man who cares about what he is, no matter how unbalanced and bordering on insane he may be. In a stroke of genius, Scorsese gives us back a hero that we can care about all over again!
The film is brilliantly shot with the macabre setting making a perfect backdrop to an almost unresolved tale of a tortured man. The trauma of war, and the extreme inhumanity of concentration camps, turns Teddy into a borderline alcoholic and his wife into a deranged woman. It is only fitting that DiCaprio play the role of a hero who, like Lucifer, falls from the heavens; but then his flawed self is able to achieve redemption that was denied to Lucifer. Mark Ruffalo makes an excellent foil to DiCaprio’s Teddy, and Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow add to the sense of danger and evil that Teddy believes permeates Shutter Island. Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson play the two “Rachel” characters with ease, particularly Mortimer who goes from loving wife mother, to screaming harridan in the space of one shocking second. Michelle Williams does well with the disturbed Dolores.
The film is worth one and more viewings to get at all the layers that exist in the story. Brilliant effort by Mr. Scorsese!