Balanced somewhere between madness and sanity, Shutter Island is a noir masterpiece about secrets, lies and, ultimately, the undeniable power of forgiveness.
Leonardo DiCaprio gives what is perhaps his most electrifying performance as Teddy Daniels, a Boston federal marshal who talks like Sam Spade and smokes unfiltered cigarettes as if each one is his last. In his crisp suit and hat pulled low over his eyes, he’s a man of strict procedure, driven by the need for justice. It’s 1954, and Teddy has been assigned to a peculiar case: A female patient at Ashcliffe Hospital, a sprawling sanitarium set among the rocks of Shutter Island, has escaped. The only evidence she ever existed is a note that reads: “The Law of 4. Who is 67?” How did she escape? No one seems to know. Certainly the hospital’s ominous chief of staff, Dr. Cawley, finds it all mysterious. Played by Ben Kingsley as a man weary of antiquated psychiatric practice, Cawley intimates that Rachel Solando—who was convicted of drowning her three children—all but vanished from a locked cell. Teddy is not so sure; she must have had help from the staff. Teddy’s new partner, Chuck (a very good Mark Ruffalo), of whom he knows very little, agrees.
The marshals commence with an investigation that includes interviewing the staff and patients, all of whom are remarkably evasive. When Cawley slips, suggesting there is a 67th patient at the hospital, Teddy begins to suspect it might be Andrew Laeddis, the man responsible for setting the apartment fire that killed his wife—and that the hospital is carrying out bizarre, Nazi-inspired experiments on the patients. Teddy becomes obsessed and sets out to blow the lid off the conspiracy; finding Laeddis would, of course, be a bonus to assuage his guilt.
And so I’ll stop right here, in order to avoid spoiling the rich surprises of Shutter Island. Where these threads lead, and how they knot together, makes for one of the most spellbinding suspense thrillers I’ve seen. We don’t get the action-packed ending of so many modern thrillers, but a story that grows smaller and more intimate as it progresses. When the denoument finally comes, we’re tempted to go back to look at everything that has come before. And it all fits. There is no cheating. Everything comes to a logical, if implacable, conclusion.
Even with the air-locked screenplay, Shutter Island could have been a disaster in the hands of a director unable to manage every angle. But Scorsese understands the details. And he knows that tone is everything: he and cinematographer Robert Richardson fill every frame with deep grays and depthless shadows that draw us into the gloom of the island. The austere patient cells, with their metal-framed beds and dirty mattresses, contrast sharply against the lavish furnishings of Cawley’s cavernous mansion. And when a tropical storm threatens to become a hurricane, the marshals seek refuge in a cemetery that is more frightening than anything in Night of the Living Dead. The characters are sharp and precise, from Teddy, who weighs his need for justice against his deep sense of loss and regret, to the brief cameo by the warden (Ted Levine), who posits to the marshal that desperate men are capable of desperate deeds.
I mentioned already that Leonardo DiCaprio is electrifying here. Let me expand: I’ve had my doubts about him as an actor for years. I’ve always found him too robotic. Katherine Hepburn once said about Meryl Streep that she could almost see the gears turning in her head when she acted. While I don’t agree that’s true about Streep, I do about DiCaprio. Or, at least I did. He dazzled me in The Departed, but I thought that was a fluke. His performance in Shutter Island erases any doubt I had that he’s a truly great actor, capable of truly great things. He creates a character whose obsession grows exponentially with a catalog of improbable clues. His paranoia is just, his grief insurmountable. If you don’t believe me, watch him closely during the film’s third act: How he handles what he discovers is masterful and heartbreaking.
A great film. One of the year’s best.