By Karl J. Paloucek
One of the problems with director Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological thrillers is that over time, their references to psychoanalysis have not aged well. The science was in its early infancy and its treatment in movies like Spellbound and Psycho that was once clever now seems clumsy and weak. Academy Award winner Martin Scorsese – one of the few directors to come close to catching up to the Master of Suspense with his 1991 remake of J. Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear – has an advantage in being able to rely on decades of development and history where behavioral science is concerned, and he makes the most of it in Shutter Island.
Based on the Dennis Lehane novel, Shutter Island is set in 1954 and opens as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) arrive at Shutter Island, a sophisticated rehabilitation facility for the criminally insane. There to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a patient, Rachel, their inquiries lead them in ever more confusing circles. Limited cooperation from overseers Dr. Cawley (Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley) and Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) and a raging storm that keeps them on the island don’t help matters, and as the investigation stretches on, it becomes apparent that the closer Teddy comes to the truth, the further from sanity he finds himself.
Shutter Island is a mind-twister of a film, mainly because of conventions it plays with that can’t be entirely outlined here without spoiling the story. It’s apparent from the beginning that things aren’t always entirely what they seem, but as the film flashes back and forth from Teddy’s memories of being a soldier liberating Dachau to dreams of his departed wife, the viewer’s confidence in the narrative begins to disintegrate. But is that a fault of the film or merely one of its conceits?
The sick feeling the island’s setting exudes is underscored by the highly affected performances throughout, from Kingsley as the paranoia-inducing head of the institution to Jackie Earle Haley (2010’s A Nightmare on Elm Street) as the prisoner who serves as Teddy’s link to the truth. It’s a disturbing film in many respects, but nothing that should surprise Scorsese devotees.
It would be difficult to put Shutter Island on a par with the director’s best work, but it is at the very least consistent with the better of his projects of recent years. He remains a masterful storyteller, infusing the screen with not-so-subtle references to Key Largo, Hitchcock’s Vertigo and other films. Its dizzying plot owes something to the play and film Gaslight as well, but it’s handled so deftly that you’re never sure until the end that the one being “gaslighted” isn’t you.
“Shutter Island” is now playing on Video On Demand. See your cable system for availability.
© 2010 Paramount Pictures. Credit: Andrew Cooper SMPSP