Dennis Lehane, author of gritty crime novels like Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone and one of the writers of “The Wire,” and director Martin Scorsese, best known for movies like “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” about wiseguys, hitmen, and omertas, have come together for “Shutter Island.” While it is less a crime story than a horror-tinged psychological mystery, this, too, is about murder and madness, the difficulty of separating truth from lies, about twisted motives and anguished fears, and about the devastating consequences of unthinkable pain and loss.
Set in 1954, it begins when a murderer confined to a hospital for the criminally insane has not just escaped; she has disappeared. She was in a locked cell and then she was gone.
In the midst of a huge, gusting rainstorm, two federal marshals investigate, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo). The hospital, once a Civil War fort, is on an island off the coast of Massachusetts and when the storm knocks out all power and phone lines they are completely isolated. The marshals get soaked in the rain so they change into the only dry clothes available — orderly uniforms. They begin to look as though they belong there.
The hospital is eerie. The doctors are smooth but uncooperative, with an unsettling way of diagnosing not just the patients but the marshals — they seem to think that they are the ones who are asking questions. The patients cannot be trusted. But can anyone?
To say any more about what happens would be to spoil it. So, I’ll just write a bit about about some of what goes on around what is happening to the characters.
The first is just the pure pleasure of seeing a master film-maker showing us everything in his power after a lifetime of watching and making movies. No one in history has ever been more passionate about film than Martin Scorsese and that is clear in every placement of the camera, every cut from his full partner in film-making, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and every element of the set from his “Casino” production designer Dante Ferretti. The camera tracks through the dank corridors, the blade-like steps of the circular staircase, the driving rain and sheer cliff, telling us just what Scorsese wants us to know and no more. Each shot keeps us inside Teddy’s thoughts and the shifts between the objective and subjective are handled with a consummate understanding of the language of cinema.
Next is the choice of the setting, not just the island but the era. We see Teddy frequently thinking back to his traumatic experience at the liberation of the concentration camp Dachau. Teddy and the doctors are very much of their time a crucial one in the development of psychiatric theories as three camps — surgical, pharmaceutical, and talk therapies competed with each other and this adds another layer of interest to the proceedings.
Finally, this is a movie where everything feels like a metaphor, a clue, or both at once and every single detail is a part of the story. The intricacy of the story reaches a meta-level about the power of stories — to harm and to heal. It is an expert thriller with plenty of chills and jumps and goosebumps but finally it is the questions it raises about our ability to trust the characters and our own conclusions that will haunt us.