Being of the generation I am, I still see Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo in that sugary modernization of Romeo + Juliet or the kid who took a permanent bath in Titantic. And even though he’s proved his acting chops ad nauseum since then, my subconscious still kinda thinks of him as a teen heartthrob joke.
So imagine my surprise when I sat down to a “thriller” called Shutter Island and was presented with something of horror. It’s just another nail in the “DiCaprio Makes Serious Film” coffin. Shutter Island is essentially a ghost story where the ghosts are still alive. Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island is set roughly a decade after World War II. Veteran and US Marshall Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) is sent to Ashecliffe Hospital, the Alcatraz-esque prison for the criminally insane. He maneuvered his way into being assigned a case to investigate the disappearance of a murderess convicted of drowning her three children. Daniels is using this case as an excuse to search the facility. His goal – to uncover the horrors committed by the staff on Shutter Island.
Located on a stormy swath of rock, Ashecliffe houses many mysteries. Murder, abuse, disappearances, demented Nazi-inspired experiments… Daniels is looking for answers, even if it costs him his sanity.
Many of the locations on Shutter Island are bleak and oppressive. Ward C, housing the most dangerous of Shutter Island, is a massive, leaky Civil War era fort and the foreboding lighthouse looms over the entire story. The use of atmospheric sets is only the canvas for painting a very clever story. Even though Shutter Island has its slow parts, DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley (Dr. Cawley), and Exorcist veteran Max Von Sydow (Dr. Naehring) deliver performances that have you second guessing your previous hypothesis and bringing you back to the story.
While the viewer isn’t exposed to any direct and brute force horror, the unease is cultivated with a tremendous use of sound, lighting, and environment. Much of the most important and unsettling scenes are poignant because their complete lack of ambient music or any sound at all. Deep shadows, low lighting, and a heavy use of water through crashing waves or weeping buildings make for feelings of isolation, desolation, and sorrow. Director Martin Scorsese is renowned for brilliant and evocative film making. The man knows violence and when best to apply it. While used sparingly, the violence of Shutter Island is implied through beaten faces, bloody footprints, and abrupt shifts of calm to chaos taking the viewer off guard.
Shutter Island is a twisty, thrilling, disturbing, and confusing film that leaves you unsettled and wondering what just happened. I woke up this morning and pondered the meaning of Shutter Island in the shower. A film that I’m enjoying the next day has done its job.