March 6, 2010 by Zack
Mystery films with a twist. This concept has been done so many times in the last 10 years, badly, that I think as an audience we spend more time just trying to figure out the twist at the end than pay attention to the narrative of the story. M. Night Shyamalan has almost single-handedly ruined the sub-genre in itself by making hokey, cheap “twists” to his already weak and thin narratives in movies such as “The Village” and “Signs” that when you see a film advertising “The ending will BLOW YOU AWAY!” the eyerolling is almost a reflex.
Now comes “Shutter Island”, based upon a novel by Dennis Lehane. The film revolves around an escaped prisoner (or “patient”) at a maximum security mental institution called Ashecliff Hospital on Shutter Island, off the Boston Harbor. US Marshall Teddy Daniels (Di Caprio) and his new partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), are assigned to the case and after a shaky boat trip–Daniels tries to “get a grip” of himself while having sea sickness–the two embark on the case, involving dealings with mad people, and an enigmatic doctor named Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley).
Like any mystery film, there are red herrings and booby traps, and while you’re trying to figure out just what is going on at this asylum, you’re also unravelling the backstory of Daniels’ life. He was a WWII hero, who took down a death camp in Dachau; he also experienced trauma when his wife burned in a fire that was caused by an arsonist that Daniels’ reveals to his partner–may be on this island as a prisoner. As the two investigate the place further, there are more inconsistencies in Dr. Cawley’s approach and philosophy versus how the asylum is actually run, that the two of them believe they’re in danger of being kept there.
The paranoia, along with Daniels’ past sufferings coming back to haunt him, make the film more and more brooding as it goes along. And while you are trying to figure out the “twist”, it becomes more clear as the film progresses–and you can take the journey with Daniels as he starts to battle his own madness, that it makes for a perfect payoff in the end.
The film’s theme of being your own prisoner and how we torture ourselves works well, and the answer in the end to all the questions is not only well done–it’s the only way the film could work. The directing is masterful, once again, by Scorsese. The atmosphere is dark, and at times claustrophobic. It has a touch of film noir that makes the film sexy and lethal. It wants to terrify you, entice you, and tease you. And all three are pulled off perfectly.
This also features some brilliant performances by its lead actors: Ben Kingsley is wonderful as the off-putting and seemingly villainous doctor; Max von Sydow plays another mysterious character, another psychiatrist that Daniels doesn’t trust; Di Caprio is aggressive and powerful as the tormented Daniels in probably his best role since “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”; and even Michelle Williams is impressive as Daniels’ wife who appears to him in his dreams and visions throughout the film, haunting him and plaguing him with self-doubt.
This film is extremely well executed and worth more than one viewing. While it’s a bit long (clocks in at about 138 minutes), it never feels though it’s too long and I never felt uncomfortable watching it. It’s a great movie experience. One that should have been recognized by the Academy. But how often does the Academy get it right?