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For Martin Scorsese, this thriller is unlike anything he has done before. The closest project would be CAPE FEAR. The plot is more conventional than his usual work, but the way he handles the material is often haunting and darkly poetic. Working from Laeta Kalogridis’ adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel, he is able to twist mystery conventions to suit character motivations. This is key to the film’s success.
Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, THE DEPARTED) is a federal marshal, who with his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo, THE BROTHERS BLOOM) goes to Shutter Island, a mental hospital for the criminally insane, to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer, MATCH POINT), a mother who drowned her children and believes she’s still living in the Berkshires. Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley, GANDHI) runs the institution with the mind that treating the patients as humans is the best way to treat them. Teddy has different ideas about how to treat killers, which is influenced by his experiences in WWII and the death of his wife Dolores (Michelle Williams, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN).
As stories like these always are, nothing is as they seem. Teddy has personal reasons for coming to Shutter Island and his past traumas drive all his actions. All the characters have unique motivations and as the plot unravels those motivations come clear. The core of the story hinges on a statement by Dr. Cawley regarding the state of psychology in the 1950s. It’s a war between his ways, those that embrace new medications and those who believe in lobotomies. Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow, THE EXORCIST), a German immigrant, is one that trusts surgeries. He pegs the marshals as violent men upon first meeting them, making Teddy mistrust him right from the start.
Throughout the course of his time on Shutter Island, Teddy has vivid flashbacks and nightmares, which allows Scorsese a chance to visually experiment. In an arresting sequence, Teddy meets his wife in a burning apartment as ash rains down on them. The marshal becomes determined to find the severely scarred patient named Andrew Laeddis (Elias Koteas, ZODIAC), while the patient George Noyce (Jackie Earle Haley, LITTLE CHILDREN) will play a key role in the mystery. And whom is the other woman calling herself Rachel Solando, played Patricia Clarkson (THE STATION AGENT)?
Like any mystery, the more mysteries you see the easier the next one is to figure out. But any good mystery, the why is more important than the who, what, where, when and how combined. The wrap-up at the end is long and some of the smaller elements stretch suspension of disbelief. But what makes it better than most mystery wrap-ups is why the character is wrapping it up. The why is interesting. Some might not like the why here, but I argue that one should wait until the final line. Who says it and what happens right after paints a complex picture of everything that has come before. It makes an interesting comment on mental illness. Who has the right to kill monsters when all humans are violent?