It’s no great trick to work out the twist in SHUTTER ISLAND, nor is having done so any great hindrance to enjoying this latest collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. In fact, the clues judiciously scattered throughout the film all but demand that the audience figure out that one small piece of the puzzle for the story to reveal its true integrity as it also considers how society as a whole, and its individuals, process pure evil.
The eponymous island houses Ashcliffe Asylum, a unique hybrid of prison and mental health facility that houses the most difficult cases of criminal insanity. It is to this rock off the Massachusetts coast that U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and his new partner, the affable but essentially passive, Charles Aule (Mark Ruffalo) come to solve the disappearance of one of the inmates, a woman who murdered her children, but is so far gone that she has confused the facility with her home in the Berkshires. It is a dour place indeed, but run by Dr. Cawely (Sir Ben Kingsley) a psychiatrist who has radical ideas about treating the mentally ill. Perhaps too radical. On the surface, though, he talks a good game, eschewing lobotomies and electric shock and even the new-fangled psycho-pharmaceuticals just coming into their own in 1954 in favor of talking and listening. Daniels, finding idiosyncratic resistance by the staff to perfectly reasonable aspects of his investigation, eliciting peculiar information from the inmates, or patients as Dr. Cawley insists on calling them, and haunted by his own nightmarish memories of his dead wife (Michelle Williams) and his Army service in World War II, must also contend with violent weather, migraines, and what may be a vast conspiracy by a shadow government with him at its center.
The line between sanity and insanity is the tightrope that Daniels walks, faced as he is with stories that seem credible, but coming from those who have been certified of unsound mind, and stories that seem fabricated from those who minister to them. Scorsese delivers the tension from first frame to last with a deliberately low-key mood that amps up the eeriness. It imbues even the most benign actions with a sinister ambiguity, reflecting the storys key conundrum: once someone has been labeled insane, nothing he or she says can be viewed as sane, but can the person placing the label be trusted?
DiCaprio is electrifying. From the first shot where he is literally emerging from the fog, through a story that has his character trying to determine if he is lost in a more metaphorical fog, he is coiled so tightly that even breathing seems like a painful effort. He makes of Daniel’s tenacity a revealing desperation, and his pugnacity a peculiar sort of vulnerability, one all too easily parsed by one of the Ashcliffe’s resident psychiatrists (Max von Sydow), whose German accent somehow provokes Daniels more than the doctor’s smug self-assurance does.
Telling the story utilizes cutting edge CGI in the service of tableaux that are as visually complex as they are thematically true, while also being replete with a macabre poetry. In dreams, Daniel’s wife, victim of a fire, falls to ashes in his arms; in reality, a climb down a sheer cliff becomes its own nightmarish odyssey, storm clouds lowering and wind howling like the voice of Satan himself. This is a gothic romance in the most classic sense, but with stakes that only become apparent in their entirety at the end when everything that has come before, even that staggeringly ugly tie that Daniels wears, falls into place. And that place is pure terror.
SHUTTER ISLAND may start with its own little joke, Daniels telling Aule during the ferry ride from the mainland that he has never been good on the water, but deliberate reference to DiCaprios outing as the king of the world on a doomed ocean liner or not, being lost at sea is a most excellent, even inspired, way to start a psychological thriller.