The setting of Martin Scorsese’s latest psychological masterpiece is a mental hospital for the criminally insane. Need I say more?
Based very precisely on the printed thriller by Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island is guaranteed to rob you of a small amount of sanity.
The weight of the movie rests on the shoulders of Scorsese’s ever-brilliant partner in crime, Leonardo Dicaprio, the main ingredient to the last four of his films (including gangster favorite The Departed). Fully equipped with trench coat and detective cap, Dicaprio plays Teddy Daniels, federal marshal appointed to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a patient from Ashcliffe Hospital, the epitome of creepy maximum security mental wards. Located on the inescapable Shutter Island off the coast of Massachusetts, Teddy and newly assigned partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) quickly conclude that there is something amiss about the disappearance of Rachel Solando, the unstable missing patient responsible for drowning her three children (an especially unforgivable offense to Teddy).
Swimming in a pool of lunacy and delirium, the marshals try to uncover the secrets that everyone in the hospital seems to be in on but them. Their work with the reluctant but seemingly benevolent Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) heightens the mystery as the enduring loyalty of his staff, which includes the talented Max von Sydow as Dr. Naehring, leads to suspicion of other questionable activities taking place at the asylum. Pieces of the investigation don’t fit together, and key members of the staff are away on conveniently timed vacations. As Teddy sorts through the cryptic details through deranged interviews and drenched exploration, his past unravels through a series of vividly disturbing dreams.
Michelle Williams stars in these hallucinations as Teddy’s dead wife Dolores, and his ulterior motive for taking the Ashcliffe case is revealed: to find (not kill) Andrew Laeddis, the man responsible for the fire that killed his wife. Trying not to stray from the original investigation and to maintain some level of sanity in order to get him and his partner off the island alive, Teddy can’t fight the urge to venture to the crypts of Ward C, the super secretive branch of the asylum where Laeddis, the infamous patient number 67, is surely kept. In the meantime, allusions of conspiracy and cold war memories are accentuated by relentless weather, impossibly eerie music and danger oozing from every crevice of the island.
Scorsese has an uncanny ability to get the audience incredibly invested with his genius sense of how sound and image should work together. This Hitchcock-inspired celebration of cinematography is no departure from the ordinary for him. The intense camera movement creates feelings of anxiety, involving the audience in each scene with shots panning across the island or the ward, much like a quick glance around. Scorsese strategically hands you piece after intricate puzzle piece in numbered order so you spend the entire movie constructing this work of art, and it isn’t until the last 20 minutes that you take a step back to look at your work and realize the picture looks nothing like the box. Keen editing adds a new dimension to the plot making at least a second viewing necessary in order to appreciate the intricacy of his work.
Yes, the bulk of the terror experienced in this film comes from expert camera angles, but perpetual uncertainty undoubtedly plays a role in the audience’s fear. It is difficult to identify which characters the marshals can trust, as the hospital staff is mysterious and Teddy’s troubled mind and increasing paranoia create doubts of him surviving whatever it is they have in store for him. Is he a rat in a maze? What pills has Dr. Cawley been feeding him exactly? Where is Laeddis? Who is Rachel? Will it ever stop raining? Don’t try and build the puzzle yet, let Scorsese and his visual brilliance do it for you.
Welcome the madness with an open mind, a mind that is prepared to be twisted into a pretzel. Be careful though. I hear insanity is catchy.