Shutter Island begins as a fun and crazily creepy popcorn thriller, but the movie eventually turns into something far more disturbing. By the end, it’s not fun at all – the preview audience I saw it with was stunned into silence. So does this mean the film makes a serious misstep or that it’s a trippy, bravura head spinner?
After arguing with myself long enough to make me feel like I was one of the picture’s characters – it’s set in a 1954 penal institution for the criminally insane – I decided on the latter. Directed by Martin Scorsese and based on a book by Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island is a stylized period piece that ultimately speaks to a contemporary crisis: the post-traumatic stress suffered by so many American soldiers returning from the war on terror.
Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) suffers from PTSD, even if he doesn’t know what to call it. After liberating Dachau, where he saw the horror of the Holocaust firsthand, Teddy returned home to America only to lose his wife (Michelle Williams) in an apartment fire. Now a shell-shocked U.S. marshal, Daniels is assigned to investigate a prison escape on Shutter Island.
Dachau should have been an early clue that the movie was going to go to some dark places. We get glimpses of the concentration camp in brief flashbacks, and at first I found the references to such real-world awfulness to be out of sync with Scorsese’s slick, showman style. (As always, his camera prowls with purpose, while the noir score, overseen by Robbie Robertson, delivers giddy retro goose bumps.) Yet Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis artfully weave the flashbacks into the larger story – they’re graphic, but never exploitative – so that it is all of a thematic piece.
Much of the film’s initial tension comes from the gulf between the gruff Daniels and the academic psychiatrists running Shutter Island (led by Ben Kingsley, but also including a blood-curdling Max von Sydow). Daniels and his partner (Mark Ruffalo) are – as von Sydow points out – “men of violence,” much like the island’s inmates.
Those are four commanding actors in that paragraph, and Shutter Island offers plenty more: Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch and Elias Koteas all have crucial supporting parts.
In the lead, DiCaprio seems a bit strained at first, but his increasing panic makes more sense as the investigation spirals out of control. The movie eventually helps us understand – as the The Hurt Locker did – how warfare can warp the minds of young men.