If there’s anything I’ve learned about the movie industry over the years it’s that the studios haven’t learned anything. If they can screw up a project, they will, even one with a pedigree like that of “Shutter Island.” This movie was supposed to be released back in November, right in the middle of Award Season. Apparently it didn’t test well or Paramount didn’t feel it was Oscar caliber and as a result it was pushed back. That’s not the end of the world, it happens all the time, and it’s not necessarily cause for concern. What is cause for concern, however, is the new release date (mid February, a dumping ground for Hollywood) and the new trailer. I have see the “Island” trailer approximately 128 times in the last six months and suddenly, a few weeks before the release, we got a different trailer cut to play up the “scary” factor and make you forget that this was supposed to be an award winning movie. Therefore, my excitement going into “Shutter Island” was only equaled by my nervousness.
Opening in 1954 New England, “Shutter Island” is set an isolated mental institute (found on, coincidentally, Shutter Island) for the criminally insane. The institute is equally dark, depressing, and creepy, a place no one would ever want to stumble into even if it didn’t contain the worst of the worst nut cases. It is in this world that US Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) finds himself, summoned to the island to find an inmate who has escaped. Daniels is the definition of a flawed hero, struggling with both the ghost of his murdered wife and flashbacks of his actions in The War, but he is nevertheless extremely tough and determined. He has his own agenda for taking this case, namely that he wants to expose the acts of Shutter Island’s front man Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley). Before too long, however, Daniels becomes acutely aware that Cawley is on to his little game and is working diligently to lock him away with the crazies. The film is filled with mind games, fantastic twists, and extremely intense sequences, culminating in a final act that is both heavy and thrilling.
Though it is a departure from the type of movie director Marin Scorsese usually brings us, “Island” is nonetheless exquisite in its craftsmanship. It kind of made me wonder if Scorsese could have revolutionized the suspense/thriller/horror genre if he had dedicated himself to it so many years ago. The pacing is SPECTACULAR, never quick to move until the very end and yet I never once felt as if it was dragging or became even slightly disinterested. The tension and suspense builds throughout the film while using none of the typical gags and bits you expect to get in a thriller. Music, sound effects, and the like are used to heighten the suspense, not cause the suspense, adding ambiance to the feel of the movie. Likewise, there are some action sequences here and there but unlike so many other thrillers, the action doesn’t allow for release of the suspense, rather allowing it to plays further on the tension of the subject matter as well as your own emotions.
The technical aspects of “Island” are equally magnificent (though that’s what I expect from Scorsese). Shutter Island is a frightening place and the use of color, sound, and shot selection left me feeling as almost a bit claustrophobic, as if I myself was trapped inside the asylum. I am a big fan of a director allowing the actual sounds of the film’s setting and environment to provide the soundtrack. “No Country for Old Men,” for example, is soundtracked (not a word, I know) almost exclusively by the action of the film and the dusty plains on which it takes place. “Island” often does the same. One scene in particular in which Daniels lights match after match to guide his way is amazing in its use of sound. My wife jumped EVERY SINGLE TIME he lit a match. (Though maybe that’s more about her than the film but I’m going to spin it in favor of the film.)
I wouldn’t say the on screen performances are quite as good as the behind the camera work, but in all honesty, I don’t know how it could be. I was (clearly) blown away by the direction. However, DiCaprio is as strong as ever, continuing his work toward a lifetime achievement award for making me look like an idiot for calling him a crappy actor who’s only made it in life because he’s good looking. “Island,” “The Departed,” “Catch Me If You Can,” and “Blood Diamond” have all gone a long way in forcing me to forgive him for his part in “Titanic.” Teddy Daniels is rough, gritty, and haunted and DiCaprio pulls it off well. His support, including Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams, and Jackie Earle Haley, are all strong characters requiring strong performances. All of them come through admirably, with the exception of Mark Ruffalo. I just don’t know what to do with Ruffalo. I want to like him and I have nothing against him. It just seems to me that he is the exact same character in every single movie, whether it be a thriller like “Shutter Island” or a throwaway RomCom like “Rumor Has It.” He just bores me at this point and as he is perhaps the second biggest player in this film, I felt like he held the whole thing back a bit.
“Shutter Island’s” closing act is tremendous and the final words should, for my money, be added into the lexicon of memorable movie lines. My only real complaint about “Island” is that it often feels too self important. The script is based on a book by Dennis Lehane, who also penned the books that “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone” are based upon. Those books cover hard, important subject matters that lend themselves to significant adaptations. “Shutter Island,” on the other hand, isn’t significant in terms of the topics and issues therein. It’s a straight thriller. An excellent, compelling thriller to be sure, but still not quite on the level of Lehane’s other works. At times it feels like Scorsese (or perhaps screen writer Laeta Kalogridis) is trying to make “Island” more important, more impactful than it really should be instead of just allowing it to be one of the better thrillers of the last few years. This forced significance by no means overshadows “Island’s” strong points but it does keep it from reaching its fullest potential.
I have no idea how to pronounce that screenwriter’s name,