After the blinding headache I received watching Mystic River, one of the most devastating movies plotwise I have ever seen, I baulked a little at seeing Shutter Island as it was penned by the same author. But it had a mental hospital on a deserted island and looked awfully creepy, so despite the two-and-a-half hour running time I couldn’t really resist. Well, that was back in September, and six months later the thing has finally arrived at cinemas, and was unable to live up to the hype I generated for it.
The movie opens as Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels is on a ferry to Shutter Island, sent for a case involving a disappearing patient at the island’s prison for the criminally insane. Rachel Salondo drowned her three children and has, somehow, gone missing from her room. Can Daniels, along with his new partner Chuck, find Salondo? Does Teddy have ulterior motives for being on Shutter Island? Do the doctors have ulterior motives for getting Teddy onto Shutter Island?
The whole movie is rife with clues to what is really happening on this isolated island. A lot of them are red herrings, or confusing, and that is the ultimate problem: that when the ending arrives, it’s hard to buy. The longer I think about it, the more I feel that the movie didn’t lead there, but somewhere else altogether. In some movies, a second viewing gives you the thrill of rediscovering scenes that now appear in a completely different light. Whenever I reflect over Shutter Island’s scenes, I can only think, “But that makes absolutely no sense. What the hell?”
I doubt I’ll be watching it again to see if I’m right. For one, the music in this movie is laughably over-the-top. Perhaps it’s purposeful, but the ridiculously LOUD AND DRAMATIC VIOLINS as Teddy and Chuck and their delightfully ’50s-era nicknames drive up to a fence. The music makes it seem like perhaps zombies or vampires are going to jump out at you unexpectedly. (Spoiler: they do not.) It made me feel as if I’d just watched the climax of the movie in the first four minutes. That, along with some appalling green-screen work whenever Teddy finds himself in a moving car or boat or standing in front of some lush and distant scenery, makes it an awkwardly amateur film in those respects. From Martin Scorsese, no less. I imagined him standing in front of a CG computer and adjusting his glasses, saying to the digital artists, “What is this modern tomfoolery? In MY day, we didn’t have real forests, we had to make them out of clay and light them with fire we built with our own hands! Do that!”
Tempering the crappy effects and sounds was the fantastic acting. Leonardo DiCaprio played the Marshal himself, and spent most of the movie sucking on a lemon and looking angry. Mark Ruffled-o was much more endearing than he is playing romantic fodder in lightweight comedies, charming Leo and everyone else as the mellow and logical Chuck. The divine Ben Kingsley is Dr Cawley, the institution’s head psychiatrist and a man with a disarming smile and a good way of biting a pipe. Post-Rorschach Jackie Earle Haley appears briefly and is almost unidentifiable. (Perhaps he needed a moving mask?) My favourite was a surprising turn by Michelle Williams as Teddy’s wife Dolores, killed in an apartment fire, who appears to him pleading for his help, and is frankly brilliant as well as beautiful. These credible and beloved actors, along with some genuinely scary set pieces, save this from being terrible and elevate it to okay.
When a storm ravishes the island, you will feel like the rain is bearing down on you, too. When Teddy is scouring the prohibited, dark and ominous C-block for information, you will be scared. (Perhaps, like the one person in my crowded cinema, you’ll even shriek and thus cause the rest of the audience to start laughing.) When the music isn’t overbearing, the mood is exactly what Scorsese wants it to be.
Except for the ending. I can’t stop thinking about it. To me, if the ending is true, then the rest of the movie makes no sense. If the rest of the movie is true, then the ending makes no sense. It makes me want to pick up the original novel and figure out what author Dennis Lehane had in store for Teddy. Something about it smacks of cliché and other parts strike of stupid. And in more parts—like in an interrogation scene where someone is handed a glass of water but is holding nothing but air when she sips it—it just appears to be lazy filmmaking.
Go see it, just so we can discuss it. But if you really want a movie about what happens in a mental institution, hire Quills. At least that has Geoffrey Rush in the buff in it.