Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer
Rated R, Now Playing
From the very start of Shutter Island, even in the opening credits, director Martin Scorsese is out to mess with minds. The first frames of the movie show a vomiting Leonardo DiCaprio, hunched pitifully over the toilet of a rusty ferry, stricken by the ruthless waves and impossibly thick fog. “Get it together, Teddy,” he coughs. Scorsese has no time for pleasant introductions. The ominous music never ceases.
As with the opening scene, the entire premise of Shutter Island is delicious and unsettling. Two duly appointed federal marshals travel to Shutter Island, a mental ward for the criminally insane, to investigate the disappearance of one of its patients. During their stay, the marshals discover oddities in the behaviors of both the ward’s patients and staff.
There ought to be, I think, such a thing as the Leonardo DiCaprio Scale of Acting, which covers the spectrum of his typecast characters. On the left, there is Jack from Titanic — young, fresh-scrubbed and dashing. In the middle of the spectrum there is Howard Hughes from The Aviator, an unstable concoction of gallantry and neurotic genius. Then, a few long strides to the right: Teddy Daniels from Shutter Island. In essence, Teddy is the character DiCaprio has wanted to play his entire life. Teddy is a heroic figure, no doubt about that, but deeply troubled by past traumas. He smokes excessively, his brow is permanently furrowed in thought and he is plagued by lingering pain. He’s smart, but erratic, and one wonders how he ever got a job in law enforcement.
DiCaprio is the perfect lead for the role, and since we experience Shutter Island only through his unreliable eyes, we don’t know what to believe. And doesn’t uncertainty form the core of all of our fears? Imagine learning that a meteor will crash into the Earth, destroying all life, within the next year. The only problem is, no one knows exactly when it will appear. How will you live your days? Now imagine that you know the precise date and time it will fall. Does that change your plans?
Scorsese understands this principle, and is relentless in his assault. He uses cheap suspense tactics with relish. He cranks up the music, pieces normally reserved to tie a knot in the audiences’ hearts just before a climactic explosion, during perfectly normal scenes, like a car ride or a walk in the rain. He hides facts in unreliable narrators. He confuses the audience with rapid, mysterious shots, some that end too early, and some that overstay their welcome. A woman, igniting into flames. Dead children, frozen in a block of ice. They come without warning, without explanation.
There is one scene that does particularly well to emphasize the uneasiness you feel throughout the entire movie. Teddy and Chuck are interviewing the patients in the therapy group of the missing patient. One lady asks for a glass of water, prompting Chuck to leave. While Chuck is away, she grabs Teddy’s notebook and scribbles down one word. The piercing screech of a violin fills the emptiness of the theater. Chuck comes back with the water. She picks it up and drinks it. Cue split-second spliced shots of her drinking with no glass in hand, her putting the glass down empty, and a cut showing the glass half full again. Later on in the film, Teddy rushes to the cemetery in the pouring rain, looking for a hidden body. Absent mindedly, he checks his notebook, and finds the word the lady wrote down.
Wouldn’t you like to know what it was?