“Shutter Island” has one foot in and foot out of that particular pitfall.
A prisoner (Emily Mortimer) is missing from Shutter Island, Massachussets’ experimental facility for the most violent psychological patients. Since the escapee in question can’t have gotten off the island and the guards can’t find her, a pair of US Marshalls (Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo) have been called out to the island to find her.
“Cape Fear” fans know that Martin Scorcese is perfectly capable of a stylish, entertaining thriller that never gives up its director’s personal idiosyncrasies, and “Shutter Island” is more proof of that. It’s probably the most style-laden movie he’s made over the last two decades, particularly the dream sequences, but Scorsese is canny enough to know how to keep that sort of thing from getting away from him.
This being a psychological thriller, Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio), the lead investigator, must have quite a few demons of his own rattling around in his head. And boy does he, from his experiences as a World War II soldier freeing concentration camp prisoners to the murder of his wife, he’s got problems, horrible dreams that keep him up at night whispering secrets to him. And because it’s a psychological thriller its proximity to insanity a danger in its own right, threatening to upend our protagonist’s grasp on reality.
Fortunately, the filmmakers realize all this (and they have the benefit of working from a Dennis LeHane novel, who is also quite familiar with the trappings of the thriller) and work very hard to make those trappings work in their favor instead of simply reveling in them in favor of light entertainment.
It does however follow that primrose path for quite a while, right down to a convenient hurricane preventing contact with the main land, before yanking Teddy off of it and revealing its true intentions to the audience. “Shutter Island” is probably 20 minutes longer than it needs to be because of that slowness inherent in every moment of the film. It’s got the problem Scorcese-films frequently have; they never end because he enjoys making them so much.
Shutter Island isn’t the only place harboring secrets, it turns out, and Teddy isn’t there by accident. He’s been tracking his wife’s murderer (Elias Koteas) through the US penal system and discovered that the island may not be exactly what it claims. That inmates come there, and then just disappear.
The reality of “Shutter Island” is that a lot of it is tremendous fun to watch. DiCaprio is playing the same sharp, tough, hard-ass he’s been playing in quite a few movies recently, but Scorcese knows how to use him as a prop for his visual sequences and he works well within them. Teddy’s various dreams and hallucinations are full of the kind of visual tricks that other less, talented filmmakers repeat uselessly, mistaking them for depth, but in the hands of a real master they’re actually quite evocative.
DiCaprio is ably supported though, which helps smooth over the rough patches, particularly from Ben Kingsley’s kindly psychologist, and a very short appearance from Ted Levine that is the highlight of the film.
The problem is that it’s all trick, and I’m not convinced it’s one that can survive its revelation. Psychological thrillers, good ones, are ultimately about their characters not their plot, and while those two things turn out to be intricately intertwined in “Shutter Island,” that may be lessening both rather than strengthening them.
As hard as “Shutter Island” works to convince you that is a dumb but flashy thriller when it is actually a fairly smart one, it may well be as hollow as any magic trick. It’s a decent experience but it’s hard to tell what it all adds up to for anyone, least of all for Teddy. “Shutter Island” is stuck a little too much in its own head, and lacks perspective.
A disappointing ending aside, a lot of “Shutter Island” is terrifically well done. It may be less than the sum of its parts, but it’s a great deal more than we get from a lot of thrillers. At the very least, Scorcese proves that it’s possible to do one of these things without just repeating the moves other directors have made. But ultimately it doesn’t really go anywhere, and that’s probably the real deciding factor.
It would be easy to write “Shutter Island” off as just an paean to old thrillers the way “Cape Fear” was, but that’s just because it’s hard for some people to accept Scorcese could make something so… insubstantial. There’s nothing wrong with light entertainment, and the reality is if anyone other than Scorcese had made “Shutter Island” its inventiveness would get more of the applause it deserves. There’s quite a bit that’s good about it, but a lot of “Shutter Island” is exactly what it appears to be as well.