Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is the first great film of 2010. (Yes, I know it’s really a 2009 film that was held back till now.) I say that in full knowledge of the fact that a lot of people will hate the film. I’ve already heard a good many complaints about it—most of them grounded in the fact that the viewer was able to guess the “twist” ending long before the end of the movie. Hell, I went into the movie almost certain that I knew what the twist was—and I was right. So what? If all the movie had going for it was a twist ending, it wouldn’t be much of a movie. We are after all talking about Martin Scorsese here, not M. Night Shyamalan. Put it this way, if you dislike Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) because it reveals much of its mystery long before the ending, you’re probably not going to like this movie either.
The film is set in 1954 and starts with U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) aboard a ferry headed for the titular island that houses a maximum-security institution for the criminally insane. The reason for their journey is that one of the patients—a delusional child murderess—has inexplicably disappeared in classic mystery locked-room-puzzle style, and they have been brought in to find her. But nothing seems quite right about any of this.
The head of the facility, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley as the embodiment of every overly-cultured film-noir authority figure), is more a hindrance than a help at nearly every turn. His right-hand man, the constantly probing Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sydow), is sinister and German. The latter—combined with Naehring’s choice of music on the record player at their first meeting—makes Teddy suspicious of a possible Nazi past. And yet we’re given hint after hint that things aren’t what they seem and don’t add up as they should. Teddy has memories of being one of the liberators of Dachau and recognizes the music as Gustav Mahler’s String Quartet—an odd choice for the commandant of a concentration camp, given the Jewish composer, and an obscure choice for anyone, since it’s a rarely played unfinished work (only one movement was completed).
Things become more off-center as Teddy has nightmares that mix up the liberation of Dachau with his wife’s death in an apartment fire set by a pyromaniac, Laeddis (Elias Koteas), who, according to Teddy, was sent to Shutter Island and then simply vanished. Or did he? Could Laeddis be the 67th patient Dr. Cawley insists doesn’t exist? And why is Teddy’s wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) dripping wet in his dreams if she died in a fire? Everything—even the unreal, 1950s process-work look of the ferry ride to the island—is geared to make Teddy and the viewer increasingly confused about what is and what isn’t real. However, both we as viewers and Teddy are given the very hints we need to unravel things—the question really is why and to what point? Where is the increasingly nightmarish vision taking us?
If Inglourious Basterds was what you get when a pop-culture moviemaker like Quentin Tarantino gets his movie geek on, Shutter Island might be said to be what you get when a master filmmaker gets his movie geek on. The references are different and they run deeper—and they’re more infused into the film. There are echoes of a number of noir films—especially the post-war ones with their added aura of disillusionment—and there’s a lot of Hitchcock on display, from Spellbound (1945) to Vertigo. Part of the central premise—with behavior that only makes sense at the end—may even owe a debt to Roland West’s The Bat Whispers (1930). I felt intimations of Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner TV series, too, and I’d not be in the least surprised if Scorsese has seen Ken Russell’s TV film The Mystery of Dr. Martinu (1991).
Shutter Island is a film to be seen more than once—I’ve seen it twice already—and a film to be savored. It reveals new depths and undercurrents at every turn. On my first viewing, I thought the long flashback at the end was too long. On my second, it seemed fine. And as far as the twist is concerned, don’t get so wrapped up in it that you miss the double-whammy real twist at the very end—and the moral ambiguity inherent in it. Rated R for disturbing violent content, language and some nudity.