Leonardo Di Caprio (curious), Mark Ruffalo (helpful), Ben Kingsley (medicinal), Michelle Williams (dead), Emily Mortimer (mad), Max von Sydow (German)
What’s it about?
Set in 1954 and based on Dennis Lehane's 2003 novel of the same name, Shutter Island is about the mysterious goings on in Ashecliff Hospital, a facility for the criminally insane in the middle of the ocean. One night, an inmate called Rachel Solando (Mortimer) goes missing from her high-security cell, and US Marshals Teddy Daniels (Di Caprio) and Chuck Aule (Ruffalo) are sent to the island to investigate. It starts out innocently enough with Daniels and Aule interviewing everyone about Rachel’s disappearance. But they get frustrated by the seeming lack of co-operation from the head of the hospital Dr Cawley (Kingsley) and his German assistant Dr Naehring (von Sydow), and start to suspect a cover up. As the plot progresses, it becomes clear that Daniels has taken the case on Shutter Island for the very personal reason that the man who killed his wife, Andrew Laeddis, was transferred to and disappeared from Ashecliff. He was told this by an ex-Ashecliff patient called George Noyce, and he wants to find Laeddis. Noyce also told Daniels that human experimenting conducted by Dr Cowley on patients in the island’s lighthouse is resulting in people dying unnecessarily. Things, though, are not what they seem.
What’s good about it?
Daniels is an ex-soldier who was part of the American unit that uncovered Dachau in Germany in World War II, and one of the men who slaughtered all the concentration camp's guards. So along with the highly-stylised ‘50s hats and trench coats that Di Caprio and Ruffalo wear, there’s loads of fancy flashback sequences that give Shutter Island a dramatic, classic and classy look. Scorsese captures the claustrophobic and terrifying aura that all good mental institute films have (see: Girl Interrupted, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) that’s potent enough to convince us that if we ever stepped into one we’d definitely never leave. Shutter Island’s ending will be the most talked about part of the film, and people have been moaning to us that the twist’s obvious. But we thought it crept up on us pretty elegantly and the revelations that follow it more than make up for any lack of subtlety, even if it’s not quite as “WTF!” as Fight Club or The Usual Suspects. Oh, and the soundtrack is totally amazing.
What’s bad about it?
It’s pretty long (138 minutes) and, having only seen it once and knowing what we now know about the characters, we suspect there would be holes in the plot if we watched it again. More than that, Di Caprio’s character’s flaws come over as forced and ever-so-slightly unbelievable. One problem Scorsese and Di Caprio’s working relationship has, though very respectable indeed (The Departed, The Aviator, Gangs of New York), is it will always be compared to Scorsese and De Niro’s triumphs like Goodfellas, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. But that’s a bit like saying we don’t like the cheese sandwich we’re eating because it’s not quite as nice as the nicest cheese sandwich ever made.
Neither Scorsese nor Di Caprio is at the top of their game in Shutter Island, but like all successful teams they know how to win when they’re playing badly. Good not great.