Director Martin Scorcese leaves you in no doubt the type of movie you are about to watch, a ferry shrouded in mist glides gently towards a mysterious isolated island, ominous music swells as the characters enter the psychiatric hospital and their firearms are taken away. The crescendo diminishes as it must and the stage is set.
US Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo Di Caprio) and partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are sent to Shutter Island to investigate a missing inmate or patient, as the head of medicine corrects him. The mysterious island houses an asylum for the criminally insane which is run by Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley), a man who smiles a lot but never in a good way.
Dr Cawley is attempting to move psychiatry out of the dark ages, lobotomies and strong drugs turning human beings into somnambulant zombies. Dr Cawley suggests talking to them about their issues might help, a radical approach in 1954. That all mental patients would be shipped to an island, out of sight and out of mind in every sense, might seem somewhat inhuman but might have been common practice at the time.
He receives help from his shadowy assistant Dr Naehring (Max Von Sydow), with a splendid introduction camera pan and German accent, who may conform to movie stereotype or not, before the film ends.
However before you can say cognitive therapy, doctor witnesses start to go missing and patients start providing odd clues and notes that say “Run”, which is never a good sign. Strange conversations are held and slowly the difference between the marshals and the patients they have come to investigate, begins to blur. A storm blows up and no one can get off the island, a movie precursor for mayhem to ensue.
This is not a horror film, however there are many disturbing images and scenes, with the action particularly intense when the Marshal’s visit ward C, the wing for the most dangerous of patients.
The period detail and production values are excellent and Caprio continues to grow as an actor, finally shedding the “but he looks too young” persona, that was hardly his fault but did detract from his earlier serious work.
There are many, many flashbacks and divulging too much of the story would skirt perilously close to spoiler territory. Safe to say that strange lighthouses, concentration camps and Daniels own past are fully explored.
If the film feels like a throwback to a 1940/50 noirish thriller filled with stagey scenes and clean cut policeman, I believe this is entirely intentional. This is Scorcese having fun, occasionally at the viewers expense, with a plot that darts and turns and ultimately will have different meanings & understandings to different people, when it comes to a close.
The film is all about mood, claustrophobia and isolation and it does achieve this effect well. However like any movie where you don’t know what is going on and why, when you do, sometimes the effect is lessened. Perhaps such a film is all about the journey and not the destination. This is certainly a wild ride while it lasts.
All the performances are strong but the film does rest on Caprio’s shoulders and much like “Inception”, he comes through with a believable depiction of a man adrift, searching for answers.
Unfortunately Shutter Island is not the place to look for answers, there are only more questions.
Faithfully adapted from best selling novelists Dennis Lehane’s Novel, which in itself a radical departure from his usual Kenzie and Gennaro franchise.
A great experience, masterfully filmed and a good story told well but your enjoyment may rest on your ability to suspend disbelief and accept the movie for what it is.
As with any movie of this type, the end reveal may colour what you think of the film as a whole, certainly the journey to that point is engrossing and unlike any other mainstream film in 2010.