Set aside the gangster stories and the New York character dramas of the Martin Scorsese you know, because “Shutter Island” showcases the master filmmaker in a fresh mind-bender mode he’s never been in before. He directs an elaborate, ever-deepening search for the truth through an atmospheric maze of deception and the unexpected, all leading up to a shocking, must-see twist climax that serves as a more than satisfying payoff to the crazy, gripping two hour journey preceding it.
Investigating this 1954-set labyrinth of secrets are U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his newly-assigned partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), called to Shutter Island’s Ashcliffe Asylum to find a patient who’s escaped from the mental hospital for the criminally insane. But immediately upon arrival, the marshals encounter a lack of cooperation from the staff, particularly from head psychiatrist Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), who seems to be covering up something sinister going on at the asylum.
As Teddy spends more time at the mental hospital and delves deeper into the case, he has recurring, extremely eerie flashbacks and dreams. These include messages from his dead wife and memories of his horrifying WWII experiences in the liberation of the Dachau death camp. Both slowly take a toll on his mental stability as he learns that something is definitely afoot at Ashcliffe, and the more he uncovers, the more he realizes that he must unlock the secrets of Shutter Island before it drives him as mad as the patients.
With a myriad of plot turns and surprises, the story is expertly plotted and thought-out (even if it does get a tad confusing at times), and the movie consistently continues to gain depth as it advances. Viewers are kept guessing all the way up to the extended, jaw-dropping explanation, which rightfully earns a spot on the list of the best movie twists ever.
Throughout the film, veiled hints are dropped about the end secrets (like in any good psychological thriller), and some plot points don’t quite add up or completely fit until the final revelation. Yet without a skilled director handling the multi-layered material, the story could have easily fallen apart, and the ending could’ve ruined the entire movie. But Scorsese proves yet again why he deserves to be known as America’s greatest living director, crafting suspense that would make Alfred Hitchcock proud and building an ending so delicately shaped that twist-master M. Night Shyamalan himself could learn a lot from it. And in keeping with most brain-spinners, “Shutter Island” highly benefits from a second viewing, growing even finer with knowledge of the big reveal.
Scorsese also really impresses with the dream and flashback sequences, always full of rich cinematography, creepy, haunting imagery and spine-tingling thrills. From the first one of them, it’s clear that they’ll completely submerge viewers into Teddy’s world and at the same time mess with their heads, from trapping them in a burning room to perturbing them with sights of war atrocities, sometimes even evoking chills similar to “The Shining.”
For a director with so many superb films, this one shows a new side of Scorsese, but comes up a little shy of ranking among his very best. He’ll often start to amass lots of suspense in a scene (the somewhat jarring but sufficient score helping to increase it), and then he hits a dialogue-driven segment where he loses momentum, still keeping interest but slowing down the pace and thus requiring him to pick up the pieces to rebuild the tension.
What’s completely devoid of fault however is the acting. DiCaprio supremely immerses himself into his role, and after only the opening sequence I began thinking of him more as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels rather than as actor Leonardo DiCaprio, a true feat for a big star. Viewers invest just as much as Teddy in his journey, and feel right there with him all the way up through the emotional finale, where DiCaprio pulls the audience head first into his intense situation. Long gone are his days as the kid from “Titanic” — in the coming years he’ll be thought of as this generation’s Dustin Hoffman or Robert De Niro. In fact, he’s already replaced De Niro as Scorsese’s muse, this being their fourth movie together, and will no doubt win an Oscar very soon.
Backing up DiCaprio with additionally engrossing performances are Ruffalo, at this point a veteran in the detective role, and Kingsley (always a joy to watch) as the devilishly sly bad guy. Michelle Williams as Teddy’s deceased, otherworldly entrancing spouse and Max von Sydow, with a threatening German accent as the other head doctor (still at the top of his game at the age of 80) similarly enhance the film’s level of captivation. There are also a number of actors that appear in only a scene or two who leave quite a lasting impression, chief among these Jackie Earle Haley (Rorschach from “Watchmen”) as a wonderfully slimy rat of a patient in one of the most memorable scenes of the movie.
Leo and Marty have scored another hit in this brilliantly shot mystery island, one of the best full-out psychological thrillers of the past several years. From the dangerous, high-up cliffs to the confining madness of the patient wards, viewers are glued to their seats for the whole ride. Understanding doesn’t come until the last 20 minutes, but once it does, the mind is shattered in “Shutter Island.”
Three and a Half out of Four Stars