‘Shutter Island’ movie review: Leonardo DiCaprio in foggy Scorsese mystery

Shutter Island is a maddening film, an exquisitely made but frustratingly generic thriller that only eventually rises above its source material (a novel by Dennis Lehane) after a two-hour slog. It’s directed by Martin Scorsese, who hasn’t made a habit of making bad films; what’s his worst – New York, New York? Cape Fear

Shutter Island falls into this company. And yet, most seem to be giving it a pass. Or more than a pass: comparisons to Kubrick and The Shining have been floating around. That’s nonsense, but I’m giving it a pass, too; as much as I disliked a good portion of the movie, I can heartily recommend giving it a watch and drawing your own conclusions. 

(Spoiler warning: this movie is so predictable that any plot discussion will lead to unwanted revelations. If you want to go in fresh – and you should – don’t read any reviews, or press material – even the tagline gives too much away, in a cutesy wink-wink way – and whatever you do, don’t watch the trailer.) 

Yeah, don’t watch the trailer. I’d probably seen it 20 times over the past year, as Shutter Island was originally scheduled for a Fall ’09 release, and the trailer has been a major part of the rotation in cinemas since last Spring. But one viewing is enough. It gives away the basics of the ending to the movie (to astute viewers, anyway) and leads to a frustrating experience while watching the feature; you’re praying this well-made film doesn’t lead to the generic finale you know is coming. 

The year is 1954. Shutter Island is an island off the coast of Massachusetts that houses a mental institution. Think Alcatraz, for the insane. One of their patients is missing: Rachel Solano, a mother who drowned her children. Federal Marshalls Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are called in to investigate. Make that Feduhral Mahshulls, as DiCaprio doesn’t hesitate to underline the regional dialect to no affect other than to distract. 

Something doesn’t seem right about this place, Teddy thinks: about Dr. Cawley (Ben Kinsgley), who is hesitant to cooperate with the investigation, about Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), a possible former Nazi who seems to enjoy provoking Teddy. About the creepy, frightened inmates he encounters along the way, played by familiar faces like Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, and Elias Koteas. 

But something doesn’t seem right about Teddy, we think: he has sea sickness, headaches, and two sets of flashbacks, one involving a WWII concentration camp, the other involving his dead wife. Yes, he’s our traditional unreliable narrator/protagonist, and Scorsese doesn’t hesitate to underline the obvious three times over. 

Aside from the story, Shutter Island is quite wonderfully cinematic; it isn’t a horror film, not really, but works in a similar manner, dripping with atmosphere and an overbearing sense of dread. There’s no release, either, just a slow-burn tension that builds throughout. The music, arranged in part by Robbie Robertson, aids a great deal – particularly a haunting final tune over the credits. 

So does the trenchant cinematography by Robert Richardson, which makes wonderful use of long corridors and dark corners. Production detail is flawless, capturing a 50s look that’s enriched by Scorsese’s noir-ish 50s feel for the material. 

The acting also helps: Ruffalo and Kingsley are especially good, particularly late in the film, and Ted Levine has a great scene discussing the ‘killer instinct’. But that story, it’s a real deal-breaker. 

Shutter Island could have worked wonderfully. If it were played as straight drama, if it were left ambiguous; if it did anything but fall into the generic thriller trap. I mean, it’s only a very small step above Gothika or straight-to-DVD material, and no matter how good a filmmaker Scorsese is, this is one thing he cannot overcome. 

I see the potential in there because after the big reveal, where most any other thriller would have ended, Shutter Island continues for another 20 minutes. And now, with all the cards out on the table, the film finally pays off, and the drama in the material – latent for the previous two hours – finally comes to life. These twenty minutes save the film; the rest of it could go either way. 

Here’s two entertaining reviews, an all-out rave from Variety’s Todd McCarthy and a vicious pan from The New York Times’ A.O. Scott. The truth lies somewhere in-between, but either way the film is worth seeing and judging for yourself.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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