Handling a major plot twist is no easy task. Letting it go unnoticed is not fun for the audience, but slipping and providing a hint so substantial will make the investigation work too easy. Shutter Island runs into trouble with both, but particularly the latter. Dennis Lehane’s novel is so effective because it requires the reader to use the mind and develop his or her own perception. Martin Scorsese’s film, on the other hand, blatantly lays out all of the details and attempts to throw you off track with elements that feel misplaced.
Two ‘duly appointed Federal Marshals’ (in DiCaprio’s Boston accent, of course) are assigned to investigate a missing persons case. But this is no ordinary missing person. Rachel Solando is a patient at Ashecliffe Hospital on Shutter Island, a facility for the insanely dangerous. From the moment they step foot on the island Marshal Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Ruffalo) get a taste of the amalgamation of warmth, eeriness and violence Ashecliffe has to offer.
Employees like Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Deputy Warden McPherson (John Carroll Lynch) are eager to help with the investigation, but it’s clear their keenness has its limits. As the investigation continues an intense storm bears down on the island and Teddy begins to uncover the hospital’s darker side, which he suspects involves immoral medical experiments. Additionally, Teddy’s own demons come to the forefront in the form of debilitating migraines and sinister dreams of his late wife. The further he digs, the clearer it becomes that something is amiss at Ashcliffe and he’s about to be consumed by it.
Shutter Island is reliant on its eeriness as is Ashcliffe Hospital. From the moment the film begins, a bold score provides a backbone for a series of grayscale images and a terribly troubled looking DiCaprio. Those colorless moments are contradicted by more vibrant shots of the facility grounds. The beautiful courtyard is peppered with disturbed patients demonstrating their lunacy, offering a successfully troublesome paradox.
The uneasiness breaks down as the job of creating apprehension is passed on to the hospital staff. Rather than offer subtle hints that something isn’t quite right, Dr. Cawley and his team provide an overdose making the audience’s game of playing detective nearly effortless. The twist isn’t given away completely, but viewers are put on the right track much too early taking the suspense out of the latter portion of the film.
Occasionally Teddy’s dream sequences help break up the monotony of him and Chuck lurking around the hospital premises. This is where the cinematography is at its height. Director of Photography Robert Richardson is on point the entire film, but it’s during Teddy’s fantasies that the imagery becomes the key to making the occurrence so powerful. These dreams are very strange and somewhat hard to digest. This is appropriate considering the nature of the material, but Scorsese takes it a step too far showing a few overly graphic scenes involving children. Rather than purport the intended effect illuminating the drastic plight of the characters, its high degree of aversion removes the viewer from the moment.
That’s the film’s sole disconnect. Even with the lack of tension, Shutter Island is still engaging, which is largely due to stellar performances. First and foremost, DiCaprio is the heart of this film. For any sane individual the happenings on Shutter Island are nearly impossible to understand, but DiCaprio’s ability to effectively portray every asset of Teddy’s disturbed mind makes it seem impossibly real. The rest of the cast does a fine job, but the two that stand out are Emily Mortimer and Jackie Earl Haley both of whom are responsible for the film’s most memorable and threatening moments. The sole character that doesn’t have a lasting effect is Chuck. This is the result of poor adaptation work rather than a weak performance. Not enough attention is paid to the connection between Teddy and Chuck making Teddy’s dedication to Chuck unjustifiable.
Regardless of the errors made throughout the film, the ultimate sentiment will rely on the reaction to the ending. There is a twist and it’s a big one. Rather than pave a smooth path to the finale, Scorsese jerks the audience around between blatant revelations and confusing diversions. Eventually the all too obvious hints overcome the attempts at maintaining the uncertainty and the outcome is less rewarding than it could have been.