With Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley. Rated R for disturbing violent content, language and some nudity. 138 minutes.
Fans of novelist Dennis Lehane, or the movies made of “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone,” already know not to expect any happy endings from SHUTTER ISLAND. This is a tale of a descent into madness, and things can only go from bad to worse.
Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are U.S. Marshals sent to investigate an escape from a federal prison for the criminally insane. Set on the fictional Shutter Island in Boston Harbor, it is supposed to be escape-proof, with the only means of getting on or off the island a ferry. The missing patient is a woman who murdered her children, and no one seems to be able to explain how she vanished from a locked cell.
However, as the investigation continues, Teddy comes to believe that there is a larger conspiracy at work. It involves illegal experiments, ex-Nazis, private financiers, and even the House Un-American Activities Committee. Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) promises complete cooperation, but it soon becomes obvious that things are being held back and that he is being manipulated. In the midst of this, a hurricane hits, further cutting them off from the mainland.
What director Martin Scorsese has fashioned from Laeta Kalogridis’s screenplay is an example of what might be called “paranoid cinema.” The sense of evil secrets and danger are present from the beginning, even when all that’s happening is that the marshals are arriving at the facility. When things really start to spin out of control, we have to wonder what exactly is real and what is either part of Teddy’s dreams (as in his memories of liberating the Dachau death camp) or being set up to misdirect him (as in witnesses who have been coached). As the film progresses, he slowly loses every vestige of the outside world and the question becomes, as one person suggests, whether he has been set up to become a patient there himself. This is that rare film that keeps you wondering how it will all turn out right up to the end.
DiCaprio gives a feverish performance that requires a number of changes in tone without losing the essence of the character, and it’s some of his best work. Ruffalo has a more nuanced turn as Teddy’s new partner, while Kingsley makes clear that Dr. Cawley has yet to reveal all his cards. Patricia Clarkson, Elias Koteas, Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley and Max von Sydow are among the people showing up in key supporting roles, while Michele Williams – as Teddy’s dead wife – may give the film’s most haunting performance, no pun intended.
“Shutter Island” is a dark, moody film that zips through its 138 minute running time but takes us to a place where some viewers, in the end, may not want to go. For those willing to stick with it, this is a horror story that isn’t about the supernatural, but about the terrible things people can do or experience, and the extent to which they will go into denial to avoid the horrible truth.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.