Shutter Island is one of those films that demands an immediate second viewing, just so that you can go through and pick out how the filmmakers did what they did. It’s also brutal and heartbreaking, with one of the finest last lines I’ve heard in I don’t know how long; gorgeously filmed, atrociously scored, not flawless but it shouldn’t be – it’s a movie about beautiful, broken things, after all.
This is the kind of movie that’s difficult to review without giving away too much, because the plot starts its slow twist almost from the beginning. In one sense, the plot summary is very basic: Character X goes to Place Y, and Things Are Not As They Seem. In this case, US Federal Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are called to Ashecliffe Hospital – a gothic fortress for the criminally insane – to investigate the disappearance of a patient who killed her children. The patient’s disappearance gets resolved rather surprisingly; but by that time, Teddy, haunted by the liberation of Dachau and the death of his wife, has his own ideas about what’s going on on the island, and he’s not giving up that easily.
It will take you about ten minutes after you leave the theater to start going, “Wait, that setup is sort of outlandish. I mean, really?” And it is. But you won’t even care, because Leonardo DiCaprio will have broken your heart into a million pieces with his grief and his love and his war flashbacks. He is the heart of this movie and he carries it beautifully.
A word about the twist. I’ve seen all sorts of people complaining that they saw it coming in advance, as if that were a strike against the film. I think too many of us have come to define “twist” as the kind of thing M. Night Shyamalan tries to bludgeon us over the head with in every one of his movies. I’m pretty sure the twist in Shutter Island isn’t supposed to blindside you. It’s the sort of twist where you’re supposed to start suspecting early on that something’s wrong and then slide right along with the movie to an ending that, while you wouldn’t have seen it coming when you stepped on the slide, seems inevitable by the time you get to the bottom. That’s tricky, people. It’s not hard to fool the audience up until the last five minutes of the movie and then say “Ha, psych, we lied to you, it’s really like this instead.” (Though, admittedly, it’s hard to do it well, a thing proved on a yearly basis by Shyamalan’s post-Sixth Sense career.) It’s a lot harder to bring the audience along with you, every step of the way, and still not lose the magic like you were David Copperfield explaining how he gets those rings to stick together. Scorcese and DiCaprio between them pull it off beautifully.
Is this Scorsese’s best picture ever? Well, no. But it’s a pretty damn good Scorsese, a slow, creepy tribute to film noir in which the political message is as out of date as a vintage issue of True Detective and the message about human frailty will never not be relevant.
So what’s the verdict? Four stars, because I want to beg Scorsese to take it back and have it rescored by someone who’s not deaf and doesn’t hate humanity and freedom. Countdown to the DVD release starts now.