The Good: Actually scary, Decent direction, Cool character development, Good supporting performances.
The Bad: Some truly hammy acting from DiCaprio, Overbearing soundtrack, Serious pacing issues.
The Basics: Despite some campy moments, Martin Scorsese manages to direct a horror film which is appropriately deep and unsettling with Shutter Island!
I wonder if, when Martin Scorsese learned his film Shutter Island was being pushed back from October (2009) to February 2010, he thought, “Oh, crap.” February is a notoriously bad month for films. It’s pretty much the dumping ground for bad films, the way late-August/early-September is. In that case, movies that couldn’t quite perform during Summer Blockbuster Season are dumped into the marketplace as the studios gear up toward the push for the winter movies and Oscar Pandering Season. In the case of February, cinephiles who are burnt out from Oscar Pandering Season watch a lot of schlock while the Oscar votes are tabulated and the new year of movies actually begins with March’s attempt to make new year blockbusters. Scorsese, having been around the movie business for many years, had to have known he was being bumped to the theatrical equivalent of a Friday night prime time timeslot. Shutter Island opens during a particularly dismal time of the movie year.
So, I was unprepared for how good it was. In fact, having seen the preview trailers, I was entirely unenthusiastic about the screening I attended and I went with a sense of trepidation and the feeling that I was wasting my time and gas money. It’s always nice when I can admit I’m wrong. Shutter Island is dark, moody and despite an overbearing soundtrack and problematic performance bits by Leonardo DiCaprio, the psychological horror shakes things up in a moody and wonderful way. The result is a movie which is actually scary and is difficult to watch. As always under such circumstances, it is worth noting that I have not read the novel upon which this was based, so this is a very pure review of the film alone.
Teddy Daniels and Chuck are U.S. Marshals who are sent to Ashecliffe Hospital For The Criminally Insane on the mysterious Shutter Island when one of the inmates, a murderer named Rachel, goes missing. Baffled at how an inmate might disappear without a trace, the Marshals are met with hostility by the doctors and workers on the island as they join the search for the dangerous fugitive. But the mystery compounds for the investigators when they turn up no clues, except for a note which implies that there might be more inmates in the facility than there are on record. When the investigation is halted because of a hurricane on the coast, Teddy and Chuck are cut off from the mainland and trapped on Shutter Island.
At that point, Teddy begins to hallucinate and the hospital administrator, Dr. Cawley, tips his hand in insinuating that understanding the minds of the killers is the best way to cure them. The mystery rapidly compounds when Teddy’s reality becomes unsettled and the mystery he was sent to investigate may not be the true reason he is at the facility. Distancing himself from Chuck, haunted by memories of liberating a concentration camp and the death of his wife, Teddy flees the facility and searches for answers outside the hospital.
Shutter Island quickly becomes a “haunted house” type horror story and the house is both the physical boundaries of Ashecliffe which is cut off from the rest of the world and the limits of Teddy’s mind. Teddy’s hallucinations are psychologically significant and terrifying and while his backstory is mentioned, seeing the manifestations of his past as he becomes more twisted by his surroundings is effectively frightening and compelling. And while Shutter Island is racked with the “haunted house” conceits of things in the dark jumping out and location-based jumpy moments, what is most impressive about Shutter Island is that there is a decent amount of character work in it. This is essentially a combination of a “mess with reality” story and a “haunted house” story.
Teddy arrives at Ashecliffe having lost his wife and having witnessed atrocities in World War II, so he arrives on-screen as something between a gumshoe and a worldly man who is looking to keep order in the world. From the moment he is compelled to surrender his sidearm, he becomes unsettled; he is not a man who likes giving up control and it quickly becomes apparent that Cawley, Dr. Naehring, and the hospital warden are all about maintaining control. So, Teddy becomes a likable protagonist and while he becomes unsettled rather early on, the film remains watchable because it unfolds in a way that is both stylish and compelling. Despite never having read the book, the film feels like it is moving toward a science fiction-type reversal at the end and there is one, but writers Laeta Kalogridis and Dennis Lehane do a decent job of laying the clues before the viewer so seasoned cinephiles will see it coming.
What makes it worthwhile is the journey in this case. While the film is dreadfully slow in parts, it has a decent “jump” factor. It has been some time since a thriller actually got my heart pumping, but Shutter Island made me jump and flinch, which are both excellent traits for a movie like this. Martin Scorsese does a good job of using shadows both to hide and reveal and the way he keeps the cameras close to ceilings during many of the chase scenes gives the entire place a very claustrophobic feel. The sense of being trapped plays well on the big screen and helps enhance what might be a very average horror movie otherwise.
What does not work so well is the soundtrack and some of DiCaprio’s acting. While Sir Ben Kingsley manages to never go over-the-top with his performance – letting his lines drip occasionally with menace, but never becoming b-rate – and Max von Sydow understates to make Dr. Naehring unsettling, DiCaprio is outright hammy with his fake accent (which slips several times in the movie) and stare which seems to want to scream “I’m intense,” but comes across as “Look at my eyes, stop listening to my voice!” DiCaprio does not seem to have a physical presence to make the investigative portion of his character’s role seem plausible. As well, the soundtrack is overbearing and telegraphs far too many of the moments when the viewer is intended to jump, gasp or feel grossed out.
Barring that, Shutter Island works and it does so in a way that has enough substance so those who are not fans of horror movies are likely to enjoy the movie. Still, it’s not for the weak of heart and it’s not for those who can’t handle a twist. Now on DVD and Blu-Ray, Shutter Island has a commentary track, movie previews and a few other goodies.
For other films featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, please check out Inception!
For more film reviews, please check out my index page!
© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.