Most would agree that the era of the suspense thriller really hit its peak with the Hitchcock movies of yesteryear. With Martin Scorsese’s love of movies, he undoubtedly spent much time watching these tense mind-benders from ROPE (1948), to REAR WINDOW (1954), to VERTIGO (1958) – I have always been partial to the Jimmy Stewart ones – and studied the construct, waiting for his chance to send his audience on a mind trip on par with old Alfred. He has done so here with SHUTTER ISLAND, an adaptation of the novel by Dennis Lehane, with Leonardo Dicaprio acting as his Jimmy Stewart. Though most audiences now are savvy to the twists and turns thrillers take us on in the post-SIXTH SENSE world, Scorsese uses the construct of the mental institution to keep us off balance and unaware of where that final twist will come from, and the actors play off balance enough as well to keep us guessing until the big reveal. While most of the weight of this performance falls on Dicaprio, and he pulls off the slow burn beautifully, the supporting actors do well to sell the construct also, with a surprisingly effective turn by Michelle Williams toward the end.
The film takes place in 1954 and begins with US Marshals Teddy Daniels (Dicaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) ferrying onto Shutter Island, the mental institution for the criminally insane. They are investigating the disappearance of a patient, Rachel Solando, played in different incarnations by both Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson as two radically different people. They meet the chief physician, Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kinsley), who is cryptic in almost all he says, but also in his insistence on cooperation and his refusal to show patient records. They also meet another of the hospital’s top physicians, Dr. Naerring (Max von Sydow), who’s German accent Teddy does not trust after liberating Nazi death camps at the end of the war. But Teddy also has motives for requesting this case. He has nightmares of the death of his wife (Michelle Williams), who he says was burned in a fire set by a fire bug named Andrew Laeddis (Elias Koteas), who may or may not be imprisoned on the island. And with his knowledge of the evil men from his experiences in the war, he also suspects that the institution may be experimenting on the patients for knowledge of brain and behavior modification. All of these factors lead to a suspicion of everything around him, the doctors, the orderlies… even so far as to suspect his new partner, a recent transfer who he only just met on the ferry. And as Teddy’s paranoia grows, we question his sanity as well, but is it really paranoia if they are really out to get you? This may all seem like too much for one movie to tackle, but the way the storylines all come together in the end make me long for more great work by Dennis Lehane (MYSTIC RIVER, GONE BABY GONE).
Leo Dicaprio gives us a great performance in all aspects of this character. His passion for the job is seen through interrogations of patients and his anger in his first meeting with Dr. Naerring speaks well to how the horrors of war effected him personally. But in his dreams, as he is haunted by the visions of his dead wife, we see the effect the loss has had on him and that gives us pause to question just how badly that loss twisted his mind. Sir Ben Kingsley plays Dr. Cawley as an enigmatic and ambiguous character who seems to care for patients deeply, but that only makes us suspect him more as his passion to save the institution could drive him to do anything to protect it. Both Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson do well as Rachel Solando, but Mortimer plays her scene eerily with Dicaprio, while Clarkson plays her as sarcastic, suspicious and wise. Finally, Michelle Williams plays into Teddy’s dream sequences and flashbacks as heartbreaking and yet with a tinge of something else we can’t place until later, and when we figure it out it makes us look back at all the things we may have missed throughout. The actors sell this difficult story to an incredible degree lesser actors would not be able to pull off.
But the director had a vision of what he wanted to portray and that’s who should get the credit here. Scorsese wanted to build an old school Hitchcock thriller and we have it. My only problem is his use of music, though I know Marty is a music lover. He hits the hard notes of his score too early in the film, with loud cellos and violins used too strongly too early, so the tension that could be built later by a gradual buildup has nowhere to go. But even with that limiting factor I believe this to be a great addition to Mr. Scorsese’s already diverse filmography. He and Dicaprio do pretty well together.