I’ve never seen a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio I didn’t like. And it’s no surprise some of my favorite movies starring him were also directed by Martin Scorsese. The last three movies in which the two have worked together (“Gangs of New York,” “The Aviator” and “The Departed”) have been nominated for over 25 Academy Awards. My expectations could not be bigger.
Only building my anticipation was hearing how DiCaprio plays his darkest role to date in “Shutter Island.” Now, I’ve seen him in dark roles before — like the drug-addicted, parent-cursing, basketball star in the moving independent film, “The Basketball Diaries,” and with his portrayal of Howard Hughes’ decent into madness in the blockbuster “The Aviator.” But as the movie begins, you see that DiCaprio has grown as man and as an actor — bringing with him the ability to portray the physical, emotional and mental scars that come with adulthood.
“There were moments on set where I definitely felt like we were going into uncharted territory. It was draining,” DiCaprio told the press. “It got to the point where it became more and more realistic the deeper it got — swerving away from anything stylistic and becoming more about human nature.”
In order for the cast to accurately capture the feel for the era and settings screenwriter Dennis Lehane had created, Scorsese had the cast watch classic movies from the ‘50s such as “Cat People” and “Shock Corridor.”
Immediately, Scorsese sets the mood when introducing us to the three main characters — U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio), his partner U.S. Marshal Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) and Shutter Island itself. The imposing, isolated rock off the coast of Boston is the site for a hospital for the criminally insane and is as much part of the story as is the hospital’s chief psychiatrist, Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley).
Taking place in 1954, Marshall Daniels and his new partner arrive to Shutter Island to investigate the supposed escape of a child-murdering mother. Daniels has plenty of baggage that promotes his own agenda while on the island. We know his wife died in a fire, but “it was the smoke that killed her, that’s important,” Daniels tells his partner. This is first of many clues Scorsese drops on the audience early on to warn us everything is not what it may seem.
The investigation into the patient/prisoner’s disappearance is hindered at almost every turn by unhelpful doctors who withhold information and unstable, unreliable mental patients giving puzzling clues that, on the surface, mean nothing. A storm develops throughout the movie to a full force hurricane — eventually knocking out communication and electricity making it impossible for DiCaprio and his partner to take a ferry back. Soon, dangerous criminals are loose on the island adding to Daniel’s confusion of whether or not anyone on the island can be trusted, including his partner and himself.
Co-stars Ben Kingsley (“Schindler’s List”) and Max von Sydow (“Judge Dread” and “The Tudors”) deliver excellent performances as the mysterious and possibly radical psychiatrists attempt to establish “a moral fusion between law and order and clinical care” in the most “damaged and dangerous” patients.
Scorsese does a brilliant job building tension through use of a wickedly sinister score and unmatched skill in cinematography. His drug (or guilt-induced hallucinations) is captured by the camera so vividly the audience feels his hold on sanity slipping — maybe even before the character does. And although the tone of the movie is dark and troubling, the scenes never are, even when Daniels searches for the secrets of the island in old, converted Civil War barracks with no electricity.
“Shutter Island” is a psychological thriller; you’ll need to put on your thinking caps in order to keep up with this quite literal trip. As I said before, Scorsese leaves plenty of clues throughout the film for you to figure out what the real mystery is, but if you choose to wait for the big conclusion towards the end, you’ll still be pleasantly entertained.