As a regular Car Talk listener, and someone who counts genuine New Englanders among my friends, I can assure you that -- hilarious accent notwithstanding -- our neighbors to the northeast know how to say "escape." They do not pronounce it "ek-scape." I'm sure that goes double for police officers, who might have occasion to say "escape" in the course of their duties.
But Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) says "ek-scape." Teddy is a U.S. Marshal, and as Shutter Island begins, he is on a ferry, headed for the titular island, an isolated rock off the coast of Boston, home to a prison/asylum for the criminally insane. Cue dark skies and forboding music.
On the evidence of DiCaprio's laborious accent, Teddy's from Bahston. His new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) claims to be from Seattle. As a Seattle native, I can assure you that his accent is inconsistent with the (also sometimes hilarious) accents of our neighbors in the northwest. But never mind that. Teddy and Chuck are going to Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of a female patient, a woman named Rachel Solondo (Emily Mortimer), who recently disappeared from the high security prison, which, the movie will have you remember, is for the criminally insane. Rachel was there because she murdered her children. Her disappearance has everyone flummoxed. The island is inescapable, except by boat.
Something is amiss on Shutter Island. Something more than Rachel Solondo, that is. Teddy smells a rat, or possibly several of them. He's suspicious of Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), a seemingly progressive and well-meaning psychiatrist who is slightly menacing because, well, mostly because he's played by Ben Kingsley with an air of slightly perceptible, calm menace. And possibly because from start to finish, the movie assaults the ears with a soundtrack that is really agitated and stabby, as if the entire film were the shower scene in Psycho, and psycho killers lurked in every dark, damp corner. Which apparently they do, since they are in a prison for the criminally insane which has an unusual number of leaky ceilings. But still, the music is awfully excitable. I don't think driving a Jeep up to the gates of a prison really requires quite such vigorous cello-ing.
Teddy is also suspicious of Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), a cheery old gent whom Teddy suspects is German, and a Nazi to boot. He wears little round glasses, and he listens to Mahler, so Teddy is probably right. Teddy, you see, had a traumatic experience during the war, when he was among the soldiers who liberated Dachau. He has frequent flashbacks in which he sees piles of frozen corpses. He's also traumatized by the death -- in a fire -- of his wife Dolores (Michelle Williams), who frequently appears to him in his dreams, dropping big fat clues about the mysterious goings-on at Shutter Island. Coincidentally (or is it?) the firebug who started the fire that killed Dolores might just be a patient at the facility, but he also mysteriously disappeared.
Shutter Island is prone to dark and stormy nights, especially after a hurricane starts lashing the island, thus stranding Teddy and Chuck. Teddy's flashbacks keep getting worse, and he suffers from migraines, so he suspects that the doctors are trying to drive him insane in order to cover up something. But what? Nazi experiments? Murder most foul? Between the melodramatic weather and the hysterical music, it must be something big and terrible.
Shutter Island, as a movie, is neither big nor terrible. But neither is it especially good. Directed by Martin Scorsese, here experimenting, as he sometimes does, with film genres, the film was written by Laeta Kalogridis, and adapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River). It's a cumbersome, overly long movie that's a thorny thicket of plots, subplots, and backstories. This thicket requires considerable hacking through, which requires lurching shifts from talky exposition (for which Patricia Clarkson and Jackie Earle Haley are brought on board, briefly), to action scenes requiring the climbing of vertiginous cliffs, vigorous swimming, and a fair bit of punching. The inmates of Shutter Island natter on about television and the H-bomb (the movie is set in 1954) and homicide, the psychiatrists natter on about man's violent nature, and the bad old days when patients were cruelly tortured. Everybody smokes all the time, which gives the director the chance to play with tendrils of smoke that swirl around Teddy's already foggy head. There is an obvious Hitchcockian influence at play in the lingering sense of paranoia and self-doubt that afflicts Teddy. The "is he crazy or is it the place that's crazy?" questions cling to him like a damp shirt. He also has a lot of damp shirts clinging to him in this rain-lashed, leaky-roofed contraption of a psychological, psychiatrical thriller. The director is apparently employing the ol' Chinese water torture to get the audience to crack -- there's more pointless drippiness here than in a 1980s music video.
Film Noir and horror influences lurk too, and despite all the silliness with the inconvenient weather and the movie's pileup of Cold War paranoia, ghosts, conspiracy theories, cover-ups, zombie-like patients with bad teeth, psychiatric horror, Nazi horror, espionage, tombs, castles, spiral staircases, flashbacks, and hallucinations, Scorsese manages to craft a movie that often looks pretty good, and feels sporadically foreboding even though the whole crazy contraption is always on the verge of falling apart. Tucked into the movie are some great little moments of sheer nuttiness, but Shutter Island never quite achieves a sustained mood of suspense or anything else because it's as distractible as a three year old. Ooh, look how lightning makes the statues scary! There's Teddy's dead wife again! Why is her hair wet?
And then, it turns out that Shutter Island is one of those movies with a surprise twisty ending, which is a narrative device too frequently employed to cover up an implausible plot that doesn't really stand up to scrutiny. When a character at the end of a movie has to explain everything that went before, it amounts to this: the filmmakers think the audience isn't bright enough to have followed the whole thing through all the misdirection and malarkey, even though it all adds up, really. I don't buy it. If the twist really makes sense, if it ties up all the loose ends and pulls the whole story together as it flips it all over, it won't need explaining. But if, on looking back at that trail of clues, it turns out they were mostly randomly scattered breadcrumbs, half of them meaningless, then no amount of directorial sleight of hand and shouty music is going to make sense out of nonsense.