Movie Review: Shutter Island
Release Date: February 19, 2010
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
· Martin Scorsese
· Leonardo DiCaprio
· Mark Ruffalo
· Ben Kingsley
· Michelle Williams
· Max Von Sydow
· Jackie Earle Hayley
· John Carrol Lynch
· Visit the Official Shutter Island website
by Jeff Ritter
Published: February 21, 2010
More and more I find myself avoiding movie trailers. They often give away too much of the plot and sometimes even the twist and they're often misleading. When I saw the trailer for "Shutter Island," I was intrigued. I don't typically like horror movies, and this looked pretty spooky. But then I see Martin Scorsese's name flash on the screen and I think to myself, "Hey, Marty's doing horror? That's pretty different. Maybe I'll give it a try."
If you saw the trailer and thought that the acclaimed director of such highly regarded films as "The Departed," "Raging Bull" and "Taxi Driver" was trying his hand at directing horror, then, like me, you were either misled or drew an incorrect conclusion.
"Shutter Island" is definitely Scorsese, but it's not the jump-out-of-your-seat scare-fest I'd expected. It's a character study of Leonardo DiCaprio's Teddy Daniels, set in the early 1950s. We follow Teddy's descent into madness at a leisurely pace. He is a US Marshall and World War II veteran assigned to investigate the disappearance of a dangerous inmate at the asylum for the criminally insane on Shutter Island. His new partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), dutifully follows Teddy as they question the compound's staff, led by two terrific actors, Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow. Kingsley gentle, unspoken menace and Von Sydow's more overt nod to Nazi experiments on humans ratchet up the tension. The Warden (Monk's Ted Levine) and his assistant (John Carroll Lynch of The Drew Carey Show fame) also contribute their own touch of lunacy and depravity.
Teddy has recurring migraine headaches, often accompanied by visions or nightmares of his deceased wife (Michelle Williams). She tells him that the arsonist that killed her is on the grounds and pleads for Teddy to avenge her. He also suffers from flashbacks to the horrors of the concentration camp he helped liberate in World War II -- in particular a young girl who speaks to him from a frozen heap of Nazi victims. These episodes demonstrate how Teddy's own psyche is slipping.
A bad storm batters Shutter Island and knocks out their power for a time, which allows the patients to run amok. In the confusion, Teddy and Chuck slip away to investigate the off-limits maximum security wing. Teddy is attacked by an inmate but manages to turn the tables and badly batters the patient. Chuck and a guard drag the patient away, leaving Teddy to discover a patient he hadn't expected: a man from his past (Jackie Earle Haley from "The Watchmen" and TV's The Human Target) who cryptically warns Teddy that nothing is as it seems, that the food and water and even the cigarettes he's been given are drugged, that his partner was assigned to him to keep an eye on him, that the doctors aren't what they appear to be, etc. Teddy's confusion gives way to paranoia. To say much more would be a disservice, as there is a twist ending I wasn't expecting.
DiCaprio does a better job than I usually give him credit for. I admit that I still struggle to see him as a mature adult actor. If not for his goatee he'd still pass for a teenager. His slightly high pitched voice and Boston accent makes him sound a bit like Ray Liotta. I was happy to see the venerable Max Von Sydow was still alive (and still spooky) and Ben Kingsley has probably never had a bad performance. I was also quite pleased with John Carroll Lynch's performance, especially since I tend to think of him as Drew Carey's brother. His intensity suggested that he was on a hair trigger, and that danger lurked whenever he was in the scene.
Scorsese takes his time developing the audience's sympathy towards Teddy. Personally I liked the pacing. There seems to be an increasing number of people who want non-stop action, but I think a film like this is best served with a deliberate pace. It's like Hayden's "Surprise" Symphony -- nice and easy... and then, WHAM! Audiences seemed to have been conditioned by the explosion-per-minute hacks like Michael Bay to shun thoughtful films that require even just a little effort on the viewer's part. Is it Scorsese's best work? No, but "Shutter Island" is a lot of fun if you can exercise a little patience. If this was directed by M. Night. Shyamalan, people would be calling it his best work since "Signs." I wouldn't mind seeing it again, to see if I can pick out the clues to the big reveal earlier. "Shutter Island" is a classically-styled suspense picture that won't please folks who saw the previews and assumed it was a horror film, but should make fans of Scorsese and smart film-making that doesn't take the intelligence of the audience for granted quite pleased.