Is it better to live as a monster or to die as a good man? It’s a central question revealingly asked only at the end of an emotional ride in Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese‘s latest film, “Shutter Island.” Set in 1954, Leonardo DiCaprio leads a strong cast as Federal Marshall Teddy Daniels, who visits a mental hospital while investigating the disappearance of a brutal female inmate. Ashecliffe Hospital, located at a former Civil War fortress on Shutter Island off of Boston’s harbor, is a haunting facility that Daniels believes is a cover for government-funded mind control experimentation. The fact that Daniels saw the horrors of such scientific experimentation as a soldier during World War II, and that the man responsible the death of his wife (Michelle Williams) is a resident of the mysterious institution spur his investigation, lending personal drive to his federal orders.
But as migraine-fueled hallucinations intensify and the administration become increasingly secretive and restrictive, Teddy’s investigation forces him to confront the truth that the island’s doctors depict. And it’s ultimately left to the audience to decide what truly happened on Shutter Island.
Set against the backdrop of a hurricane, nightmares are more terrific, sunshine more comforting–and scarce. Daniels and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) arrive at Shutter Island to an oppressive symphonic score making the gray skies and dreary buildings exaggeratedly eerie. But for the rest of the film, music plays masterfully to emphasize mystery–or in the film’s most tragic moment, its absence and the cheerful chirping of birds accentuate the heavy emotions of the moment, allowing audiences to focus solely on the performances of DiCaprio and Williams. Supported by a strong cast, “Shutter Island” has had the best acting I’ve seen in a film so far this year, and I doubt it will soon be beat.
Scorsese is a master director, regardless of what my fellow Big Hollywood writer Ben Shapiro says (though he said it well enough that I nearly agreed with him). Scenes occurring in a concentration camp, dream sequences involving talking dead and characters that spring bloody leaks or collapse in ashes, haunting settings in a dilapidated Civil War fortress–Scorsese emphasizes the beauty in the weird and terrible, drawing audiences further into the film instead of pushing viewers away from the strange setting and circumstances.
The tragedy in “Shutter Island” is that Laeta Kalogridis‘ adapted script brings Daniels’ investigation to a climax, then forces the audience to listen to an explanation of complex mind games before the truth is truly revealed. Films must occasionally tell, especially when books are adapted, but the “rule of four” is entirely unsolvable on screen. To Kalogridis’ credit, the scene passes quickly, using flashback to tell as much as possible.
“Shutter Island” is a dark story, with rare moments of comedy or happiness. While not a nail-biting thriller, it is an enjoyable film sure to keep viewers in the dark to the very end, and keep them talking after.