There’s a moment early on in Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” when U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, turns to his partner and says, “We haven’t heard the truth once yet.”
But in a film as crazy as “Shutter Island” — both in style and subject matter — the concept of finding any absolute truth is sheer madness.
The Shutter Island of the film’s title is the movie’s focal point, simultaneously its setting, subject and, seemingly, primary antagonist. It is the site of a mental institution for the criminally insane off the coast of Boston, where Teddy and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are called because a patient has impossibly managed to escape from her cell.
The movie, set in 1954, opens with the image of the marshals’ ferry cutting through the fog, an ominous scene that sets the stage for the rest of the film.
Dramatic, foreboding music dials up the tension as they approach the mental hospital itself. The sense of dread Scorsese establishes early on is only elevated by the guards’ demands for the marshals’ guns — a request that doesn’t sit well with Teddy — and the images of the prison itself, equal parts “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and Civil War fortress.
More unsettling is the situation in the prison itself. The prison’s medical director, Dr. Cawley, played by an appropriately-menacing Ben Kingsley, informs the marshals that the patient, Rachel, managed to escape from her locked, windowless room without being seen. He then refuses the marshals’ requests to view files kept on the prison’s staff and patients.
The staff isn’t any more cooperative than Cawley, and the prisoners themselves all talk as if they’ve been coached, none of them revealing anything about Rachel.
If you’re thinking conspiracy at this point, you’re on the same page as Teddy, who volunteered to look for Rachel for the very purpose of discovering more about Shutter Island, which has lost patients under suspicious circumstances before.
All this would be unsettling enough if Teddy were stable to begin with, but that’s not the case. He frequently has traumatic flashbacks to his time serving in World War II, where he helped liberate a concentration camp at Dachau, and has vivid dreams in which his dead wife attempts to guide him in his quest, both of which flicker on and off screen for instants and blur the distinction between what is real and what is imagined.
As if the mental storm waging war on Teddy isn’t enough, a real storm strikes the island overnight, stranding him and Chuck on the island with no hope of departure — or, as the case soon becomes, escape.
Explaining the movie any further would completely unravel it — I may have said too much already — but Teddy’s journey only gets more complicated from here. As the movie progresses, he slowly begins to realize there is no one he can trust: not the staff of Shutter Island, not his partner, and perhaps not even his own judgment.
It seems there’s a new revelation every few minutes, but Scorsese’s skill is such that each flows into the next without even an ounce of confusion or skepticism — a quality I realized is both a testament to his storytelling ability and, by the end of the film, a supreme irony. Every time Teddy finds what he believes to be the truth, he latches onto it like a life preserver, and we do the same.
Part of the reason it’s so easy to believe in “Shutter Island” is because of the powerful acting by its leads. Whether DiCaprio is doggedly questioning patients or deliriously conversing with his dead wife, his performance is uncannily realistic.
Likewise, Ruffalo’s portrayal of Chuck is spot-on. He doesn’t play Chuck as the perfect partner, nor does he make him an easy-to-spot phony intent on subverting Teddy at every move. Rather, Chuck is the perfect balance. We as an audience are just as unsure of his allegiance as Teddy.
The film’s last ten minutes are literally indescribable — to tell you would be to give away the movie. It’s the equivalent of finding out Bruce Willis is actually dead in “The Sixth Sense,” or already knowing the astronauts are on Earth in “Planet of the Apes.” Once you know the twist, it’s like you’re watching a completely different movie.
And, in the case of “Shutter Island,” I can’t help but recommend both of them to you. Pre-twist, the movie is a dynamic, gripping thrill ride that won’t disappoint. Post-twist — when you get to see the true “Shutter Island” — the movie is a fascinating and insightful look at the nature of insanity and the price a man can pay for being on the wrong side of madness.