It's 1954, and Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a federal marshal investigating the disappearance of a female patient from Ashecliffe Asylum, a remote prison for the criminally insane on an island off the coast of Boston. Of course, moviegoers must ignore the fact that the island is teeming with hordes of burly prison guards who look more than capable of rounding up a stray inmate. Plausibility is not one of Shutter Island's strengths.
Along for the ride is Daniels' new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), an amiable sort who tends to back up his boss despite his increasingly paranoid musings. Daniels has a theory that the doctors of Shutter Island may be worse than their mad-hatter patients. Because a hurricane is set to bear down on the island, the pair are forced to wait at the prison despite a newfound certainty that something sinister is afoot.
An atmosphere of trauma pervades the film. Daniels was one of the American soldiers on hand at the liberation of Dachau, and the images of that terrible place haunt him — both as dreams and waking hallucinations. Thickening an already meaty psychological broth, Daniels' beautiful young wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) has died in a fire, but like the concentration camp victims and Nazi commandants, she's a real — if hallucinatory — presence in his life.
Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island is a Frankensteinian stitch-job of genres. On one hand, it suggests classic Hollywood gothics like Gaslight, featuring Ingrid Bergman as a newlywed whose rotten husband has convinced her she's mad. In its cheesier moments, Shutter Island recalls the hysterical psychiatric potboiler Jacob's Ladder with its tortured wretches and gooey set design.
But while the classic Hollywood flicks that film connoisseur Scorsese so dearly loves usually end on an upbeat note, the celebrated director's work has always been skeptical about happy endings. While the gothic thriller Shutter Island is, from a genre point of view, a bit of a departure for the crime-film crazed Scorsese, it is in keeping with his defining sensibility. And that sensibility in a nutshell is this: the world is full of cheats and murderers, and the best policy is to watch your back.
Whether Shutter Island works for viewers will depend on their tolerance for films they know are toying with them, and their willingness to wait to see what mind games, exactly, are being played.
Unfortunately, Shutter Island is somewhat hobbled by our sense that Scorsese is slumming in the schlock-fest thriller genre. We've come to expect greater artfulness, tighter pacing, and more memorable characters from Scorsese. Instead of characters in Shutter Island, we get a succession of ghouls: mental patients who appear to have been fed through a meat grinder before being deposited naked in their roach trap cells by a creepy, manipulative German psychiatrist Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) and a prison warden (Ted Levine) who looks like he eats a bowl of human souls for breakfast. Even when Levine has his tongue in his mouth, the actor, most notable for his portrayal of Buffalo Bob in The Silence of the Lambs, always seems to be licking his lips with fiendish delight.
On a deeper level — below the cheese-ball thriller riggings — one imagines that the asylum is a metaphor for Scorsese. It's more about the deepest, darkest reaches of the human mind than an actual place. Daniels can't open a door at Ashecliffe without finding some fresh horror to fuel his belief in an epic hospital conspiracy, and Dolores — her back smoldering like a dying campfire — keeps turning up to remind him he needs to get off the island immediately. Compelled to do the very opposite, Daniels keeps digging deeper and deeper into the mire with a demonic energy. There is no craggy seaside cliff, dank cave, forbidden ward, or ominous lighthouse he won't tackle. In that way, DiCaprio is in every way an alter ego for the intrepid auteur, who tirelessly digs himself into films and stories, refusing to let go.