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Shutter Island (2010)

Shutter Island movie review
Photo Credit: Shutter Island / Paramount Pictures

By 2010, Leonardo DiCaprio had teamed up with director Martin Scorsese for the fourth time when they adapted Shutter Island to the bring screen. Throughout the year I truly enjoy watching this movie, especially to get into the Halloween mood. Dramatic, beautifully composited, and wonderfully acted, one of cinema's most formidable duos forged a flawed semi-masterpiece in misdirection.

Set after World War II, U.S. Marshal Edward "Teddy" Daniels (DiCaprio) is brought in to investigate Ashcliffe Hospital, a psychiatric asylum that houses criminally violent patients on an island. Paired with a new deputy (Mark Ruffalo), Daniels interrogates the whereabouts of a missing patient Rachel Solando. Security, nurses and the psychiatrists in charge are disturbing reserved and calm. Daniels attempts to get to the bottom of the truth of the case but battles more against his own sanity.

In cinema, asylums are a gold mine for genres like drama and horror. Female characters are often the chosen victims entered into a mental health facility by families that don't understand them and societies shunning their breakdowns or disagreeable personalities from the public e.g. The Snake Pit, Girl Interrupted, Sucker Punch, and Changeling -to name a few. The characters are often locked away by stern and impatient overseers who are forcing them to feel like they are "crazy"., Usually it's up to the audience to decide who is more unhinged: the authority or the out-of-control sufferer. In Shutter Island, a different take is used not only with a male character as the main protagonist but also the setting itself and its inmates.

From the moment Daniels arrives at Ashcliffe, he is regarded suspiciously and has several conflicting heels to contend with. The nurses and patients react to his investigation with alarming disinterest, and they are regard Daniels like he is a loose cannon about to go off. His new partner should be inexperienced or naive as to what they'e dealing with but he is astutely self-conscious about letting Daniels control the case. Equally so, Dr. John Crawley (Ben Kingsley) is the island's lead psychiatrist and acquiesces to Daniels' requests but does so with obvious restraint, meanwhile Dr. Jeremiah Naehring (Max Von Sydow) displays more obvious contempt for Daniels' presence. It's not entirely clear who the audience should trust. Even Daniels suffers with violent nightmares brought on by the war, hallucinations, and a big case of hot-headed temperament, which makes him a compelling but unreliable narrator.

The asylum itself is a cold foreboding maze of horrors. Three separate buildings house the least violent patients to the most, as well as an administrative building where the psychiatrists go into hiding. A mysterious unoccupied lighthouse sits by itself on a rocky peninsula covered in fog, symbolically exhibiting a light at the end of the tunnel. Though the island is surrounded by ocean, gray skies, and violent storms, most of the interior scenes are brightened with almost blinding luminescent lights and spotlights as if Daniels is meant to come to a new sense of awareness to himself and the investigation. When one question seems to be answered, another overshadows.

There is a lot at play in Shutter Island from the cinematography and soundtrack to even the specific way characters stand next to each other and interact behind Daniels' back. Every frame in Shutter Island is beautifully meticulous like a noir one-man examination of his own identity. You can feel one way about one scene during one viewing and then pick up something else entirely different the next. But the investigation itself is explored more mechanically and stoically than with the intrigue one expects from a mystery-thriller like this. Detail can be a film's best friend or worse enemy, and I believe this is something that often plagues Scorsese's work. Too much of it can overwrought a good idea; just enough subtle hints can make a story come to life and want to be relived repeatedly..

Daniels' mental state slips in and out of his tragic past. After coming back from serving in war, he is ravaged from guilt and trauma. His wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) is the only thing that keeps himself pulled together - and even she is is not entirely culpable. His reality is tied up in what he wants to believe versus what has really happened to his family, where consumption of new identities drives him into denial. Daniels own worst enemy is himself but he survives on the story he tells himself; something that DiCaprio performs with great ambition. He delivers an inner savagery that treads a fine line between brooding hostile remnants remaining from the war and battling against his conscience. It's the type of performance - one of my favorites - that I feel like another actor wouldn't have been able to fill, even if the movie just misses living up to his capabilities.

The cast rounds itself out with Mark Ruffalo (who plays Daniel's new deputy), Ben Kingsley (main psychiatrist), Michelle Williams (Daniels' wife). Their performances aren't entirely forgetful but not very memorable. This was the first film that actually made me a fan of Ruffalos' since I previously considered him to have the talent of a wooden block. Kingsley seems like a perfect fit but it's not a character that is heavily utilized to really warrant deep analysis. William's as Daniel's wife, who is described as "an insect living inside her brain. She could feel it clicking across her skull, just... pulling the wires, just for fun" is uninteresting and bland. The concept of her could've been multi-layered and very complex, but as a loose thread to Daniel's psyche, she fails to make an impact.

Unfortunately, DiCaprio carries the movie where I think Scorsese's vision squares off against his and fellow actor's potential. It's not that they fall short of his concept but that it doesn't serve them. Shutter Island can feel intrinsically hollow. Though the cast list is made up by a variety of talented actors from one-liners to supporting characters, most scenes are orchestrated scrupulously as if everyone is participating in an old-timey teleplay with no room for error or missteps.

The scene most revered for Shutter Island across the board seems to be the ending. Daniel's investigation leads him to an utter dead-end (to not be spoiler-rific here). Daniel's incapability to escape the asylum (in more ways than one) speaks volumes about war and soldiers, mental health, and our ability to be consumed with defense mechanisms. While usually ignorance is considered to be bliss (as the old saying goes), in the main character's case it's completely the opposite.

Inherently in mystery-thrillers we don't want to see too much about what's lurking behind the curtain until it really matters and makes its biggest impact. Scorsese weakens the suspense intermittently by magnifying small clues that should be allowed to stay small. Many of his scenes are over-rehearsed but only saved by DiCaprio, but in many reviews, even a good performance can stave off uninterest in the main character who is suffering and why we should relate to him. Daniel's unraveling mind and the participation of the asylum workers is a unique ride but one that is very constrained. It almost feels like Scorsese worked the entire movie precisely towards its ending that tries to be very astute and original but the two hours ahead of it didn't allow it to build to a satisfying crescendo.

Unlike a lot of thrillers I won't watch after one viewing, probably never to watch again, I don't mind watching Shutter Island. Scorsese and DiCaprio are a dynamite team in Hollywood but on a few occasions I can't help but feel that the former's vision failed the latter's acting capabilities (Gangs of New York and The Aviator) just as many times as they have succeeded splendidly (The DepartedWolf of Wall Street). Shutter Island sits in-between. There's enough available not be entirely bored or uninterested; it just doesn't exude the free, unrestrained madness it think it is.

Rating: ★★☆
Have you seen Shutter Island? What did you think?

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