Shutter Island is a commercial thriller that feels like it was crafted by an auteur. Similar to his 1991 film Cape Fear, on the outside Shutter Island is a combination of director Martin Scorsese (The Departed) and mainstream Hollywood. This movie appears to be an A-list director tackling what could be a B-list project but the result is a perfectly modern noir.
Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane (writer of Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, both of which became well received films), the story follows U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) travel to Ashecliffe penitentiary on Shutter Island. The place is an asylum/mental hospital for the criminally insane run by the oddball Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley). The marshals have been summoned to investigate the disappearance of dangerous killer, Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), a woman who drowned her three children. However, there is more to Teddy than we think. He has his own personal demons that island soon exorcises as he becomes embroiled in a conspiracy in which an additional patient (Elias Koteas) in the asylum may be tied to his mysterious past.
The film is however, more than just stunning visuals with a plot twist. The film little by little (thanks to its script by Laeta Kalogridis) brings us into uncertainty as we witness a variety of traumatic events involving war, violence, memories, drugs, and nuclear power. Much of Teddy's own trauma stems from the death of his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), at the hands of this mysterious additional patient. The benefit for the audience is that because Teddy's own past is tied to many of the themes of this story, we as the audience always feel involved.
Like any good thriller, all the elements continue to build to a climax. We have this ensemble of characters and each actor seems to embody their own character's essence. DiCaprio is urgent and rattled, Kingsley is charmingly creepy, Ruffalo is angst-filled, Patricia Clarkson appears in a scene as a rational mind, John Carroll Lynch appears unconvincingly friendly as an asylum guard, and Max Von Sydow is sinister in his role as Cawley's fellow doctor. The look of the entire film has this gothic sensibility that is always subconsciously creeping you out (the beginning of the film has echoes of going to King Kong's island). A genius score of previously used music is constantly being played right from the second the Paramount logo appears on screen. Like I said, different elements of the film all come together to create this foreboding sense of creepiness just like how the plot elements of this thriller all come together to one final twist.
Before I go into the twist I do want to say that the themes of this film involve secrets and unknown answers to a variety of questions. I'm sure one could have fun searching for the psychological meanings behind the imagery in the film because Shutter Island has the appearance of a film with a very deep atmosphere of symbolism. That is enough for me. I'd love to read someone's thoughts on the hidden symbols and meaning behind a variety of these scenes but just getting the sense that this film is deeper than it appears is more than enough for me.
Now is there a better ending than the one we are presented with? I don't think so. We feel like Teddy does when the twist comes and being that involved with a character inside of their head is the least I can ask for in a film.