Review: Shutter Island

If you see a movie directed by legendary director Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, it’s a decent assumption that the movie is going to be a good one. The trailer to Shutter Island certainly intrigued me, however I could not summon up the energy to see it while it was in theaters. I did eventually get around to renting it with high hopes that the movie would be at least as good as the trailer. I anticipated that it would be mysterious, scary and probably have a twist ending. I was expecting some scary creature out of the id somewhere in the movie, perhaps a Freddy Krueger. Also, there was probably going to be blood, death and a few good slashings.

Shutter Island is an island in Boston Harbor that allegedly contains a mental institution for some of our nation’s craziest people. It is reachable only by an occasional ferry. Currents make it too treacherous for anyone to successfully escape to the mainland, unless they can somehow get aboard the ferry. Federal marshals Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are called to the island to investigate the disappearance of a heavily guarded woman who somehow escaped during the night from a locked cell. The time is 1954 and a rare hurricane is churning up the eastern seaboard ready to hit Shutter Island. Teddy and Chuck hardly have time to get off the ferry and meet some of its odd denizens before the storm hits. It’s not just the inmates who seem odd. The psychiatrists and guards on the island also seem highly peculiar. The island holds the worst of the worst: seriously deranged people who have killed others, who are clearly insane and for whom traditional forms of psychotherapy have not worked. Even among this population, some are less crazy than others. The real crazies are in Block C, and there are rumors that a hard to get to lighthouse is used to perform vile experiments on its patients.

Something certainly is weird here but it doesn’t take a discerning theatergoer to figure out there are only two likely paths through the movie. In the first path, Shutter Island is everything creepy that it appears to be, if not more so, so marshals Daniels and Aule, if they can outwit authorities, can expose its ugly truth. The other path shows up early on in the movie. Since it becomes clear that Daniels helped liberate the concentration camp at Auschwitz during World War Two, and he has frequent flashbacks to a horrific murder of his three children by his psychotic wife, maybe Shutter Island is not what it appears to be and Daniels is the one being treated and is in a psychotic episode of his own.

I won’t spoil the plot for you since there is a lot to churn through. Scorsese leaves plenty of breadcrumbs, so you may find yourself like me finding the secrets of Shutter Island revealed in your imagination long before it appears in the climax of the film.

Thankfully, we do get a well-done movie, full of tension, good directing and fine acting. DiCaprio does as fine job here as he did in Inception. Perhaps it was my heart medicines, but I never found the movie particularly intense or scary. I never jumped out of my seat or clawed my spouse in a moment of surprise during the movie. (It helped that she was out of town.) My cat, which spent most of the movie purring comfortably on my lap, slept largely undisturbed. Granted, scenes such as pulling out dead kids from a pond where their mother drowned them should cause nightmares, or at least scary feelings, but in so much of this movie it is impossible to separate what actually happened vs. what could be just a psychotic memory. So the movie is reasonably engaging and interesting, just not quite what I anticipated. Which was in a way a disappointment.

I am not entirely sure why this movie with so many success factors feels so anticlimactic, but it does. You may find yourself, like me, that you have seen one too many of these movies and you wonder why you are sitting through another one. Is it because you always bought the Scorsese brand? You love Leonardo DiCaprio? There are other luminary actors in this movie as well, whose names may not ring a bell with the younger crowd: Max von Sydow as Dr. Naehring and Ben Kingsley as the chief psychiatrist Dr. Cawley. If the movie disappoints on some level, perhaps the fault rests with Scorsese who perhaps leaves too many breadcrumbs and seems more interested in filling the screen with a finely crafted visualization than it leaving less dotted lines between plot points. Had he done so I suspect there would have been a lot more buzz about Shutter Island.

Instead, it’s just a B+ of a movie that is worth watching if you are a fan of any of the above, but otherwise probably passable for worthier fare.

3.1 on my four-point scale.

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