Shutter Island is a rather odd film. The script is sometimes very good; its abrupt transitions and elliptical style ensure a good if not great performance from the film’s main star, Leonardo Dicaprio. But elsewhere the script feels stagey and mannered, resulting in rather forced performances from the European players who play the supporting characters, specifically Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow.
DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a US marshall who is sent to the eponymous island to investigate the disappearance of one of the island’s inhabitants. But these are rather special inhabitants of an island which is actually a large mental hospital. The hospital is run by a Dr Cawley, played by Kingsley and his deputy Dr Naehring (von Sydow). Daniels is accompanied by his new partner, Chuck Aules, played with a beguiling tenderness by Mark Ruffalo.
The tone for the film is set in the opening shots of the ferry that brings the two marshalls to the island. The boat appears out of the fog to the accompaniment of repeated doom-laden chords that ring the bell of melodrama, which, rather unfortunately, sounds over the rest of the film. Within hours of the men’s appearance, hospital and island are engulfed in a storm which brings down trees and power lines, and threatens to release the prisoners from the notorious and sequestered Block C, among the other, more innocent members of the island’s population.
Scorcese’s film is obviously a homage to film noir, and therein lies the difficulty; there is rather more ‘homage’ and ‘noir’ than anything smacking of really strong content. When Daniels and Aules meet the von Sydow character for the first time, the famous psychiatrist gives them a detailed breakdown of their respective psychologies. Although we learn how and why Naehring does this at the end of the film, at this point it just seems too obvious and mannered. The tone of the film is relentlessly monotonous, and I wasn’t surprised to note that as the film drew to its close, the occupants of the end seats of the three rows down from me were all checking their mobile phones. The film is at least quarter of an hour too long, and sequences where DiCaprio searches the island for the disappeared are drawn out and only add to the melodrama
However, there are things of real interest in the film. When DiCaprio’s character has visions of his wife, her death and the deaths of his children, we seem to be in a different film. These moments would not have disgraced David Lynch, and their hallucinatory beauty is one of the highlights of a very good-looking film. Daniels’ hallucinations of his part in the liberation of Dachau also merge into a very interesting sub-text about psychiatry in 1950s America, with its need to experiment with both chemical treatments and lobotomy.
The ultimate problem with the film is an ending which is telegraphed too early, can’t bear the weight of its own intentions, and reduces Kingsley, von Sydow and Ruffalo to clunky ciphers. Neither does the collaboration of DiCaprio and Scorcese have the depth and range of their collaboration in The Aviator when DiCaprio had the brilliance of, for example, Cate Blanchett to play against. It makes the melodrama of the whole project inescapable; a pity.