Martin Scorsese knows something about surprise endings which twist meisters like M. Night Shyamalan seem to have forgotten. The twist doesn’t matter if you haven’t already told a good story. By the time Shutter Island gets to its twist, it has already told such a tale. You’re invested in these characters and no matter how it turns out you’re going to walk away happy. The twist, when it happens, only serves to make a deeper connection. It makes sense of the madness, brings order to the chaos, and then rips your heart out right through your chest. The movie exists not in service of the twist, rather the twist exists in service of the movie. And when I rewatch Shutter Island, as I plan to do almost immediately, it’ll be like watching an entirely new movie. The story I was watching was not the one I thought it was, but in the end either story is equally compelling.
For now I can only tell you about the story I thought I was watching and let you discover that other story for yourself in theaters. Leonardo DiCaprio plays US Marshal Teddy Daniels, sent to investigate an escape at a remote island mental facility. Ashecliffe is a maximum security insane asylum where the nation’s most violent, dangerous, and often hopeless cases are sent. He arrives on the ferry with his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) and, though still suffering the ill-effects of seasickness, immediately gets to work looking for the lost prisoner. Daniels may, however, be interested in more than just a lost prisoner and haunted by the memories of a past tragedy he stalks Ashecliffe’s grounds, fighting his way through an uncooperative staff, looking for answers.
But is the staff really uncooperative? Ben Kingsley is sympathetic and kind as Ashecliffe’s head Dr. Cawley. The man we see in front of us seems genuinely driven to help the people he’s been charged with. He smiles and comforts even as Teddy’s investigation starts to point to something darker and more mysterious. Kingsley is just one of Shutter Island’s captivating contradictions in a world where everything seems lost in shades of foggy gray.
Maybe it’s not a man who’s the real danger. At times it seems as though nature itself is against Teddy. The island is almost permanently shrouded in an ominous, concealing mist. The hospital itself is a contradiction: at times dark and creepy place full of leaks and the screams of the damned, at others a clean, professional facility full of people who want to help. Scorsese uses his mastery of visual style to full effect, playing with even the most mundane trappings of a scene in creating an atmosphere that hints at something else beneath the surface. Cigarette smoke wafts through the air, obscuring a face and then clearing away as the individual reveals something important. Rain pounds against the windows while lightning flashes electrify a room as if Teddy is being fried from the inside out. Shutter Island is full of masterful, subtle touches which all point to something else, but which you’ll easily dismiss until later when it all makes sense. Those easy to miss subtleties linger in your subconscious and hang around until you need them. Eventually it all fits together into one, unexpected, whole.
DiCaprio’s performance is a critical part of that whole and like so much in the movie, it doesn’t all pay off until the credits roll and Scorsese closes the book on his story. In doing so he leaves us with all the answers we need, but without answering all of our questions. You’ll know what those questions are, they aren’t the ones you expect, but you’ll be asking them long after you’ve walked out of the theater.
Shutter Island is a fiercely twisted, complex film built on a foundation of character-driven emotion. Those who think of Scorsese only as that guy who makes gangster movies will undoubtedly be disappointed, but if you’re interested in more than seeing how many guns can fit inside a violin case, then Shutter Island delivers. For me it’s my favorite Scorsese, the Scorsese of Bringing out the Dead, returned from a long hiatus. Shutter Island puts all of the director’s considerable talents to use in one film, harkening back to old school suspense thrillers like the work of Hitchcock while incorporating the new ideas of modern movie magic. Thought-provoking and surprising at every turn, Shutter Island isn’t to be missed.