“Storm’s comin’,” intones the ferry captain as U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) gazes with trepidation at Shutter Island. And does it ever. Martin Scorcese’s visual masterpiece “Shutter Island” will batter you with red herrings, eerie flashbacks, plot twists — and, oh yeah, water — until you stagger dizzily out of the theater.
But first, the eye of the storm: a painful fifteen minutes of exposition in Teddy’s jarring Boston accent. Teddy sure hates water. Teddy’s wife died in a fire. The mental hospital has an electrical fence. So did Dachau, the concentration camp that Teddy helped liberate. Did Teddy mention he hates water? And that lighthouse sure looks creepy in closeup … maybe something bad will happen there?!
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But Scorcese hits his stride as the facts start to unravel. Teddy and his new partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), have been called in to investigate the mysterious disappearance of Rachel Solando, who was convicted of drowning her three children in a lake. But oddly enough, the doctors and orderlies withhold information from Teddy, leaving him blindsided at every turn. Even Rachel’s primary psychiatrist is unreachable, having left the island the day before.
The more Teddy investigates, the more we realize that Rachel’s disappearance is the least of his problems. Teddy starts asking the patients if they’ve ever met an “Andrew Laeddis” — the man who started the fire that killed Teddy’s wife, who might be a patient on Shutter Island. Coincidence? Meanwhile, Teddy’s blinding migraines force him to accept aspirin — or so we assume — from the indecipherable Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley). The migraines are accompanied by hallucinations of his manically-depressed wife (played to a soporific extreme by Michelle Williams), Rachel’s dead children, who whimper, “You should have saved us” and frozen piles of bodies in Dachau.
As in the opening sequence, Scorcese falters when he inserts exposition into the narrative. All of Teddy’s discoveries come from long discussions that halt suspense dead in its tracks. Even the climax skirts disaster with its ponderous explanations, salvaged only by a final heartwrenching flashback.
But despite its weaker moments, “Shutter Island” sustains itself on mystery. Between the doctors’ suspicious behavior and Teddy’s increasingly unbalanced mind, we never know whom to trust. The real Rachel, an ex-doctor, warns Teddy that “research” on Shutter Island is just as sadistic as Holocaust experiments; an acquaintance from the past cackles that Teddy is just a “rat in a maze.” And if Teddy is being framed, will anyone on land believe his pleas of sanity?
But more importantly, does anyone care?
We think we do, but only because Scorcese casts a disorienting spell on us with his schizophrenic camera and psychologically jolting images. The cliffs and crooked staircases take on a life of their own with swooping camera movements and unconventional angles. A shifting color palette lends a sickening tone to the images, especially the flashes of stony corpses, mass executions and drowned children. This spell, however, makes for a beautiful work of art more than an emotionally arresting character. Teddy seems distant and impenetrable until the finale of the film. And at that point, it’s sympathy we feel, not empathy.
The preview for “Shutter Island” consolidates the film’s scares into a teaser for a horror movie. But “Shutter Island” is less a jump-out-of-your-seat popcorn flick than a disturbing meditation on the human psyche. The Warden, a regrettably underdeveloped character, tells Teddy, “There is no moral order at all. There’s only, can my violence conquer yours?” The movie brings to mind “The Lord of the Flies,” asking us to consider why we commit violence and how we live with ourselves afterward.
“Shutter Island” had been stirring up Oscar buzz since before its release was pushed to February. But even if the legend of Scorcese is overshadowing the legitimate merits of his film, the thriller’s spine-chilling mood and captivating cinematography are well worth the price of a movie ticket.