Movie Review — Shutter Island (2010), a Psychological Thriller Masterpiece

Shutter Island Movie Leonardo DiCaprioA masterpiece by Martin Scorsese on the level of Taxi Driver and Goodfellas.

The year is 1954. U.S. Marshal Edward “Teddy” Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio in his usual pedal-to-the-metal best) heads for the psychiatric-jail on Shutter Island to investigate the case of a missing patient/criminal, Rachel Solando. Accompanying him is his junior partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo).

The mental hospital, which is actually a maximum-security jail protected by an army of smug and hard-core guards, is led by Dr. John Cawley, the head psychiatrist — acted with great control and restraint by Ben Kingsley.

Daniels has some baggage: he was one of the American servicemen who entered the Dachau extermination camp during the liberation of Germany. The things that he saw and did at Dachau left their indelible marks on him.

Then there’s the memory of his lovely wife Dolores Chanal (played by lovely Michelle Williams of Brokeback Mountain who never disappoints)… Memory of a fire that destroyed a family…

This is a film about the tenuous nature of personal identity and the amazing powers of the mind to create alternative realities, each as real as the other one. Or as Bill Clinton once said: it all depends on what the definition of “is” is.

What starts out as a straight-forward missing-person investigation by two G-suits slowly changes shape and turns into a man’s desperate struggle to maintain his own sanity, while trying to assess the sanity of all those around him. What a screenplay!  Kudos for the writer Laeta Kalogridis who adopted Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name.

Scorsese, who at this point in his career have of course mastered the visual language of motion pictures, opens up the first scene with a statement as bold as the first sequence of the Jaws, and the tension never lets up, partly thanks to the arresting musical score.

Jackie Earl Haley, one of those most-under-acknowledged but great actors like Barry Pepper (61*) and Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock), again treats us to a great psychological feast, bringing to life a demented patient.

While we are talking about supporting roles, I must also mention John Carroll Lynch. If you thought playing the softie honey-of-a-husband in Fargo was the best he could do, think again. See how he breathes menacing life into Deputy Warden McPherson. The man has  a range, clearly.

The resolution of the film does not turn out to be what we secretly hope it’d be. There’s a certain sense of letdown at the concluding last scene, perhaps because the lead role belongs to a good-looking baby-face guy like DiCaprio who always plays the “hero.” So perhaps that’s a casting issue that we have to deal with as audience.

Yet, deep down below, we also know that that’s exactly how it’d turn out in real life. And that explains why the hair on our necks rise when the final shock is delivered without flinching. Scorsese does not pull any punches there.

A dark downer painted in bruising black, lightning blue and thunder gray. Not a movie to watch on a sunny Saturday surrounded by your kids, family, and fresh pop-corn. But if you like psychological thrillers, this is a new American Classic that will stand the test of time like Cape Fear. Recommended.

© 2010, Gary Karbon. All rights reserved.

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