At the movies, actors are considered the most important to the viewing public because, hey, that's who they're seeing onscreen. Although they do offer considerable depth, films are made by dozens, sometimes hundreds of people. Most do their job off camera and receive little respect for it, even directors in most cases, but not Martin Scorsese. Perhaps the most notable of all living directors, Scorsese has crafted a body work unparalleled in the film world. From Taxi Driver to Goodfellas to The Departed, the man has routinely delivered solid work with films that are largely considered to be some of the greatest of all time. His genius still holds true with his latest effort, Shutter Island, based on the book by Dennis Lehane, a brilliant, haunting tale of morality and mentality that explores the difficulty of living through painful memories and what it means to accept them.
Leonardo DiCaprio is captivating as Teddy Daniels, a federal marshal on his way to Shutter Island, a land mass in Massachusetts where a mental institution rests. Along with his partner Chuck, played by Mark Ruffalo, he has been hired to find a missing patient who escaped the previous night. The head psychiatrist of the penitentiary is Dr. Cawley, played by Ben Kingsley, who explains to them that there's no logical explanation for her escape. Her cell door was locked from the outside and the only window is covered with bars. As he puts it, "It's as if she evaporated straight through the walls." After Teddy searches her room, he finds a note that simply says, "The law of 4" and "Who is 67?" As he finds clues, he discovers that not all is as it seems on the island.
However, things don't seem right within Teddy either. He is haunted by his troubled past and the atrocities he experienced in WWII a mere 10 years ago, he is having more and more vivid hallucinations of his dead wife, played by Michelle Williams, who burned up in a fire by a man supposedly held at this very institution and he is becoming increasingly weaker as time goes on. He has even been taking pills provided by the institution workers. Is he being drugged? Are they trying to keep Teddy there? If so, for what purpose? He sets out to find the answers, but must act quickly if he ever hopes to get off the island.
Appropriately, Shutter Island is like a book that you want to flip to the last page so you can see how it ends. The questions it raises linger and never go away, begging you to find the answers and I wanted nothing more than to skip to the end if only so I could finally find out what was happening. However, if I'm being honest, the ending isn't something that we've never seen. In fact, it's pretty common of any film that takes place in an insane asylum to naturally go this route, so yes, you'll probably figure out as you watch that only one of two endings are even possible and you'll be able to narrow it down to one with your knowledge of how movies generally work, but you'll nevertheless be shocked by its intricacies. It's not a simple case of that's that. It's more like a brain teaser, working in a way that even after you know the answer you have to think back and place the pieces in the correct slot.
Much of the astonishment from the ending comes from the terrific acting leading to it, though it would be impossible to delve into why some performances worked so well without giving away vital points of the story. While Ruffalo and Kingsley were great, as was Jackie Earle Haley in a particularly inspired cameo, DiCaprio steals the show. He plays a multi-layered individual dealing with heartache, fear, confusion and a sickness begun from the opening scene where he and his partner drift up to the island on a ferry that increases as time goes on. He mesmerizes in another award worthy performance, especially during the more emotional scenes. Nobody can cry like DiCaprio.
Of course, it's impossible to talk about a Scorsese picture without talking about the man's direction. As should be an obvious remark by now, Scorsese directs this picture with a style unseen in Hollywood. If you ask me, he actually tones it down a bit with Shutter Island, never forcing camera movements when it isn't prudent, but rather keeping a steady eye on what's going on, allowing his actors to do their jobs. His stylistic touch was fantastic from the simplest of shots to the recurring motif of flickering lights that can be analyzed in so many different ways you could write a term paper on it.
This is a tall claim to be throwing out when you're discussing a body of work as impressive as Scorsese's, but I believe Shutter Island may be one of his best. It's meaningful, enlightening, beautiful and intense all at the same time. It's one of those films that you walk out of and feel like watching again immediately. It's a testament to the skill of the talent involved and it shows that ingenuity still exists in an increasing Hollywood world of sequels and remakes.
There's one line of dialogue, the last one in the entire movie in fact, that set my brain racing. It's a line that has stuck with me ever since I've seen it and sparked discussion with those around me. It's a summation of the whole film and really gets to the core of life and the disparity between what can really be considered sane and insane, so I'll leave you with it to ponder over.
"Is it better to live as a monster or die as a good man?"
Shutter Island receives 5/5