This isn’t so much a review as it is a discussion of the film watching process. You’ve been warned.
SHUTTER ISLAND is maddeningly brilliant and the maddening part isn’t the film’s fault at all. We as viewers have grown accustomed to a certain breed of film from Hollywood whenever the words “psychological thriller” can be appended to a film’s description. Anyone who watches even a normal amount of movies and is over the age of, say, 16, should have a sixth sense for plot twists by now and can become bored when a film’s big revelation is as painfully clear as it is slow to arrive. When a film focuses on a Federal Marshall (Leonardo DiCaprio) sent to investigate the inexplicable disappearance of a patient at a mental institution for the criminally insane and the increasingly (and rapidly) bizarre behavior and hallucinations that surround him, you begin to concoct a certain conclusion in the back of your brain.
As the Marshall’s investigation begins to waver even further under mysterious influence it becomes abundantly clear what direction the film is taking. Normally this would be fine, but such telegraphing becomes undeniable around the 45 minute mark. In fact, the film’s end game becomes so clear at this point, that I was ready to mentally check out of the film. Then Laeta Kalogridis‘ screenplay (adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novel) introduces a hypothetical that completely rejuvenates the film. It hits like a cold shower, jolting the viewer back into the intrigue of the Marshall’s undertaking. But unfortunately this awakening doesn’t last long and the film falls back in line with its telegraphed agenda.
What’s so maddening about that is that what’s being telegraphed is indeed brilliant. The last twenty or so minutes of SHUTTER ISLAND aren’t just masterful, they’re downright immaculate. The fact that you saw the revelation is rendered inconsequential by the tragic beauty of it all. You’ll want to take the trip back to Shutter Island again. You’ll want to play detective along with DiCaprio all over again. You’ll want to be ushered through the haunting corridors of the Ashcliffe insane asylum by Robert Richardson’s hypnotic cinematography and Robbie Robertson’s nerve jangling score (which was not actually written originally for the film, but is an assemblage of classical pieces into a sort of Frankenstein score that takes on a dark beauty all its own).
No matter how triumphant the ending is, however, I can’t forget that I began checking my watch a third of the way through. And that sucks. It really does. Instead of falling head over heels for SHUTTER ISLAND, as I’m quite sure I will with subsequent viewings, I’m always going to have that caveat; that part of me that remembers how annoyed I was that the film was beyond predictable an hour into it. Not to mention how stung I was that the diversion it takes midway through (which would have made for an equally fascinating and even more disturbing outcome) ended up being a red herring.
And again, it’s not the movie’s fault, it’s just how I’m, unfortunately, wired to watch movies these days. I lose interest in a film when I begin to think the filmmaker thinks I’m an idiot. When it comes to SHUTTER ISLAND, though, I am an idiot. I’m the chump that assumed that Kalogridis script, which is quite genius in retrospect, and Scorsese’s guidance of it were trying to be coy and failing when the truth is the reality is corrupted on so many different levels in the mind’s eye of SHUTTER ISLAND that I refused to accept it; I stayed vigilante (and thus ignorant) in my pursuit to figure it all out. I, like DiCaprio’s character, lacked the perspective to see how truly organic it all is.