Teddy Daniels is a U.S. Marshal who's having a really tough week. He's incredibly seasick, yet has to ride a rickety boat across choppy waters to a place called Shutter Island. Worse, the foreboding location isn't just a misbegotten piece of land; it's actually the most unique prison on the planet—a place that houses the most criminally insane people imaginable, yet tries to do so with dignity rather than the physical and psychological abuse that was a hallmark of institutional attitudes of the time, 1954.
Daniels is heading over with his new partner Chuck Aule, to investigate the mysterious and seemingly impossible disappearance of a female murderer from her locked room at the island's maximum-security Ashecliffe Hospital. Once there, the duo find that the hospital staff, led by the psychiatrists Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), seem to be throwing up one obstruction after another, and a vicious hurricane is on its way in the dead of night.Through it all, Daniels is bedeviled by odd thoughts, dark flashbacks of his WWII exploits and his late wife (Michelle Williams) and a migraine that just keeps getting worse.
Soon it becomes clear that nothing is truly clear, and very little is as it seems, as the new film Shutter Island—reteaming Martin Scorsese with DiCaprio in their fourth superb collaboration of the past decade —develops into an epic mind-bender in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock's finest psycho-thrillers.
To give away more about Shutter Island would literally give away the essentials of its highly inventive plot. The film is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, whose novels Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone were turned into two of the best films of the past decade. While those films were rooted in a gritty realism set on the hardscrabble streets of Boston, Island keeps viewers off-balance from the beginning with its utterly offbeat setting and ever-changing story, all set against an intense atmosphere of dread.
Coming after his Oscar-winning direction of The Departed and its exploration of corruption among big-city cops, Scorsese's willingness to delve into this isolated and insane island showcases his daring even when most directors his age (67) are retiring or phoning it in with cookie-cutter plots. His command of the mind games and visions experienced by Daniels is impressive, luring viewers into an alternate world and bringing them into what might be considered his first foray into the world of horror.
Across the board, the performances are terrific (with DiCaprio possibly delivering his career-best performance), but the true key to the success of Shutter Island is the design team Scorsese reassembled from their Oscar-winning work on 2004's The Aviator. Central to all is the knockout production design by Dante Ferretti in his seventh collaboration with Scorsese. He's already snagged an Oscar for The Aviator, but Ferretti works on a similarly impressive scale here—from designing Dr. Cawley's lavish living quarters to the decrepit cemetery that houses those prisoners who truly never found a way home. Combined with the costume design of Sandy Powell and cinematography by Robert Richardson, there is not one moment of Shutter Island that feels false, even as Daniels' visions become ever more unusual.
Shutter Island isn't a typical thriller or horror film, so filmgoers should know that it digs its claws into them slowly, like a grip that starts unnoticed and ultimately becomes all-consuming and deeply disturbing. But anyone who goes should come out impressed by the effort involved, and the standards set in making a film that will not easily be shaken.