Anytime a Martin Scorsese picture comes out it feels like Christmas because I know I’m in for a cinematic treat. He’s a masterful director and really has a way of capturing powerful character-driven movies with fascinating visual language.
I came expecting a deft tale about a woman’s mysterious disappearance from an island that serves as a kind of prison/treatment facility for the dangerously insane. That storyline quickly turned into surreal and psychological torture as plot twist upon plot twist forces the audience into a confused corner, wondering if anything they’re watching is real, who is telling the truth and how badly our protagonist will wind up in the end.
That protagonist is Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), a U.S. Marshal who is assigned to Shutter Island with his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate an escaped patient named Rachel. The problem goes beyond the fact no one can figure out how she got away; there’s also the stickiness of who among the facility’s ominous staff is telling the truth or if there is more hidden away than just an escapee.
This is the kind of movie for which you should only pay for the edge of your seat. With very intense mood music by Robbie Robertson and fantastical cinematography by Robert Richardson, you will find yourself either biting your nails or grabbing the armrest just from the unsettling tension. It’s a tough movie to sit through and it doesn’t let you take a break to catch your breath or wits.
There are implications of medieval testing on the patients, a suggestion that I must admit seemed too appropriate. When you have Max von Sydow at the head of a mental health institute, my first thought was that this would be a dramatic retelling of the Canadian cult classic, Strange Brew. Sadly, it was not. The rest of the ensemble cast is an assemblage of some of the finest players in modern filmmaking.
Daniels and Aule are discomfited by the bureaucratic and enigmatic wardens who insist upon a thorough investigation but who also stymie it by providing little assistance, even going so far as to withhold vital information. Knowing that the odds are stacked against them, the detectives surmise they have played into an elaborate trap and now are inmates themselves.
This whole movie is a massive picture puzzle that jumps around, leaving clues here and there, not the least of which are Daniels’ visions and bad dreams that might stem from his recurrent migraine headaches. But there is a suggestion that he has been drugged with neuroleptic psychotropics by the devilish administrators.
You will never figure out what is really going on until the big reveal at the end. I was strangely disappointed but that doesn’t diminish the fantastic atmosphere created throughout the whole movie up to that point. For that reason this has more in common with The Shining and Silence of the Lambs than any period crime drama.
Shutter Island is a lesson in audience endurance. It is torturous and startling, a marathon of focusing on and paying attention to little details.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Max von Sydow, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine and Elias Koteas
Now playing at: Grandin Theatre, North Edmonton Cineplex, Westmount Centre Cinema and Scotiabank Theatre