I saw two horror movies last weekend. I liked one of them a lot. The other...well, that's for tomorrow. Today we concentrate on the positive and discuss Shutter Island. I know what you're thinking: how could a movie directed by Martin Scorcese with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role that's based on a novel by the guy who wrote Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone possibly be any good? yeah, if you calculate the odds you know that there's too successful a pedigree and they must be doomed to have this film be clunker. Luckily, they defy the odds and manage to make memorably frightening and suspenseful movie.
The movie opens with Scorcese in full Hitchcock mode. We meet Federal Marshall Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) as they're sailing toward Shutter Island, an old Civil War era fort off the coast of Boston that's been transformed into a hospital for the criminally insane. I'm not sure if Scorcese did this intentionally but you could tell they were standing in front of a green screen and not really on the ocean the same way you could tell in pretty much any movie made before the CGI age. That's fitting as this movie is set in 1954. Our heroes won't have the internet, mobile phones or modern forensic tools to assist them. They can't just put on sunglasses and crack jokes while their team blows white powder on stuff and examines microfibers.
Creepy music plays as the boat arrives and we see Shutter Island breaking through the fog. The two marshals are there to investigate the escape of a dangerous criminal named Rachel Selando who simply disappeared from her cell one night. Teddy senses, as do we, that this whole place seems a little off. He can't quite put his finger on it but I came to realize that the whole movie is constructed and told as if it were a nightmare. Normally I complain that people don't behave realistically in movies but in this case it's okay. They're not supposed to. Sometimes the most frightening nightmares aren't the ones where dragons suddenly pop through the window but rather the ones where things seem a little off, people behave oddly and there's always a sense of dread yet you can never really figure out why. That's what happens in pretty much every scene of Shutter Island.
As in real nightmares, the focus of this story can suddenly change and that's what happens as Teddy lives his real life nightmare. Sometimes he's investigating the escape and intellectually sparring with the secretive and slightly malevolent hospital staff (which includes Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow), sometimes he's imagining conversations with the wife (Michelle Williams) who died two years earlier. Sometimes he's remembering his time in World War II when he liberated the Nazi death camp Dachau. None of this is extraneous to the plot, by the way. It's all connected and it becomes more and more preposterous until eventually puts together a paranoid scenario and conspiracy so outrageous it couldn't possibly be true. However, the only reason it feels like it couldn't possibly be true is because the story is told from Teddy's perspective. We don't see anything he doesn't see or know anything he doesn't know. All I will say after all is this is where the nightmare ends.
Shutter Island is the very essence of film noir and and gothic horror. Some critics were put off by its dreamlike construction but it was designed that way to draw you into Teddy Daniels' waking nightmare and was a refreshing change of pace from the mostly-crap films we've had so far in 2010.