Martin Scorsese has made many great films but often he really tops himself and creates an oustanding one. "Shutter Island" is one of them.
Almost immediately, within minutes, you start to suspect that things may not be what they seem. Two US Marshalls, alone on a ship, discuss their latest assignment. The language style being spoken by DiCaprio, as Marshall Edward Daniels and his new "partner" Chuck talk about the "case" they are about to undertake, seems stilted, formal, almost cartoonish. Its all very Film Noir and artificially stylized, like B-movie dialogue. So right away you start to ask if Scorsese has made a Film Noir homage or if he has just made a bad film. There is a touch of doubt that skews easy involvement. It starts to create a kind of psychological tension that slowly begins to creep its way into your mind from behind. Something just isnt right, right from the outset.
The two detectives arrival on the truly formidable shore of Shutter Island is met with an electrically tense and visibly extreme concern. Again, its seems a little over the top. Nervous guards, and there are many of them, watching their every move, with rifles cocked and at the ready, belie a situation of the gravest and most dangerous urgency. It all seems just a bit extreme and excessive when it concerns the disappearance of a female inmate, one Rachel Solando, at the high-security asylum for the criminally insane. DiCaprio IS a US Marshall after all, come to help the prison-asylum solve the case of the missing woman. And it is odd even further that when the Marshalls are asked to disarm, Daniels pulls his gun out with ease and comfort while Chuck fumbles with his like a rank amateur ...
There is another key moment that we initially write off as being insignificantly bizarre as Daniels is led to across the facility lawn. It speaks volumes, but initially seems a simple mood-setter. It is not. As DiCaprio studies the inmates out doing garden chores, two of them pause to smile at him, one even waves beamingly. Another puts a finger up to her haggered mouth - either telling DiCaprio to be quiet or hinting at him that she "wont tell". More than just a well crafted tension and atmosphere builder, this scene, like so many others, betrays the truth. But because we havent questioned the main character, we then see these things in a certain light, Teddy Daniels light ... as we are meant to.
Once DiCaprios Marshall is introduced to the prison-asylums mysterious warden-head psychologist, Dr. Carly, magnificently portrayed by the immaculate Ben Kingsley, the extreme edge of fear and seemingly over-done caution, dissipates and we are led into a new movement that quickly shifts into the deeper psychologies and critical memories of DiCaprios character. And THIS is where the real mystery begins.
Past memories and some of the most artfully stunning visions of DiCaprios inner nostalgias, fantasies even, start to impart the real essence and motivation of the story about to unfold, with all its complex twists and turnings. Tension builds as the Marshall encounters almost universal resistance to his inquiries and a frustrating lack of co-operation. Everyone at Ashcliff is either afraid to talk to Daniels or resists him, with apparent irrationality. Answers to the mysteries do start to come immediately but we dont see them as such as we are making an assumption about reality that will lead us down a twisted path.
Slowly fear and apprehension build. It comes through as the action gets closer (seemingly) to Daniels solving the "mystery". But the key to the "unreality" of it all is in the reactions and actions of every one around the main character. The "disconnect" between Daniels reality and everyone elses gets increasingly more noticeable. Following him "literally" without question presents a classic story of a lone man who knows the truth and is being worked against by evil people who conspiratorially seek to hide it. But shift your perspective and pay close attention to how everyone else is reacting to his increasingly vigourous, even paranoid, efforts to achieve his singular vision and you come to suspect that something is seriously awry.
This is the twist of the film. We are following DiCaprio-Daniels story literally and that is where we are fooled. It is brilliantly done. On second viewing you are amazed that you missed it for so long or took the Marshalls story at face value. And what's great about that is THEN you really see how ingeniously this film is crafted and structured, how essential every shot, each piece of dialogue and every fantastic vision and memory is. NOTHING in this film is excessive or wasted. It is all very carefully crafted and plotted out. Scorsese is rigourous and economical and still produces a work that is incredibly and profoundly rich in narrative and psychological detail.
The point of the film, however fantastic the cognitive dissonance of two very conflicting realities is, is NOT the famous twist. That twist only provides the psychological fulcrum that leads us to the shift in our understanding, a flash of realization, that prepares us for the final movement and heart of the film. The real pith of "Shutter Island" crystallizes beautifully and sadly around DiCaprios final decision.
It is about our DEEP need to be able to accept the reality of who and what we are. And if that reality is unbearable is it really insane for us to step outside of "consensus", for the sake of the salvation of our souls and psyches and make another choice, the film asks. Does such a decision not only save our soul, despite its conflict with reality. Yet that decision may not be dsyfunctional, in fact, it may just be a moment of the most radical but pristine rationality. "Shutter Island", then, begs to question ultimate definitions of sanity. While a consensus of sanity is necessary for society to function without danger, it may just be, the story proposes, in the end we as individuals must come to our own realization of how our sanities are lived out. Near the beginning of the film, Dr. Carly tells Marshall Daniels, "Sanity is not a choice Marshall" ...but is it, the film asks ...
The very last words that DiCaprio speaks, the final words of the fim, perfectly in answer to Dr. Carlys statement, are the REAL POINT of "Shutter Island". Indeed they are the ENTIRE film distilled to a powerful and beautiful quintessence ... "Is it better to live as a monster, or to die as a good man".
In the light of all that happens up to that point you truly have to ask if Daniels final "decision" is not his clearest, most adamantine moment of sanity. Therefore his "question" becomes THE crux and heart of the "Shutter Island" and NOT the twist in the narrative. This is the most powerful moment of the film, a shining example of the highest meaning of Trajedy.
Robbie Robertsons musical supervision deserves special mention. His soundtrack of avante garde classical, Mahler and 50s pop musics is one of the best multi-artist collections for use in film since the spectacularly eclectic soundtracks assembled by Stanley Kubrick. It is compeletly inextricable from the mood and ambience of the film.
Masterful direction of the actors, impeccable performances, stunning cinematography and an ingenious layering of realities, dreams and projections, Martin Scorsese, with "Shutter Island", has created another great controversial piece of work.