It’s a good week for fans of movies about paranoid loners who stumble on enormous conspiracies while investigating seemingly innocuous crimes on remote, stormy islands filled with figurative ghosts. Funny how two movies that fit that basic description might be released in the same week. Funnier still that the films are from two master directors — Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski — which means it’s a good week for fans of movies, period. For cinephiles, this is the equivalent of the Super Bowl and Game 7 of the World Series being played on the same day. And for the most part, both sides of the double bill live up to expectations — and would, in fact, make a really good double bill together. These are two strong films from two icons who, coincidentally enough, have used a lot of the same raw setting and story materials to make two very different thrillers.
Scorsese’s is “Shutter Island,” named after a small, rocky speck of land off the coast of Boston that houses the Ashecliffe Mental Hospital. Foreboding and impossible to escape, it makes Alcatraz look like Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure. Standard operating procedure for movies about seemingly benevolent institutions that might be hiding dark secrets demands you begin with the picture perfect exterior that covers the evil hiding beneath, and slowly tease the audiences with glimpses of horror. Scorsese takes the opposite tact by making the dangerousness of the island clear from the first very first moment Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) arrive at Ashecliffe, with the ominous, practically operatic music pulsating through the soundtrack like an alarm warning them not to enter as the two drive through the hospital’s enormous gates.
The atmosphere only gets darker from there. Teddy and Chuck go to Ashecliffe to investigate an unusual mystery. A delusional inmate somehow managed to escape her locked cell and vanish without a trace. How did she get past the staff? Where did she go? And most importantly, what is the meaning of the note she left hidden under her bed that reads “The Law of 4. Who Is 67?” This piece of evidence is of particular interest to Teddy, who has personal reasons for taking the case and coming to Ashecliffe. Cagey psychiatrist Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) claims to have no idea of the significance of either number, but later mentions that there are 66 patients currently undergoing treatment on Shutter Island. Could the note be a reference to a 67th?
Teddy’s investigation is important to “Shutter Island,” but in some ways, it’s just the window dressing on Scorsese’s own investigation into Teddy’s damaged soul. Hounded by migraines, burdened by dark dreams of his dead wife (Michelle Williams) and war atrocities, Teddy is literally haunted by memories of the bad things he’s done and the worse things he did not prevent. At age 67, Scorsese’s got a big bag of tricks, and he reaches deep into it to bring the audience into Teddy’s fragile psyche. Some of the visual techniques are demonstrative — like the elaborate, gorgeous dream sequence where Teddy holds his dying wife in his arms as she turns to ash and crumbles through his fingers — and some are more subtle. Teddy suffers from migraines and light sensitivity; observe how Scorsese places a fire in between Teddy and another character during their key dialogue scene so that the flames kick up through the bottom of the frame. The unpredictable pattern of flickering and flashing is disorienting, and gives the audience their own feeling of light sensitivity.
In the character of Teddy, Scorsese and DiCaprio have created an even more powerful portrait of the debilitating nature of guilt than they did in their last collaboration, 2006’s “The Departed” (at the same time, they’ve also made a more disturbing portrait of mental illness than their collaboration before that, 2003’s “The Aviator.”). And that’s ultimately the reason to see “Shutter Island.” The main mystery turns out to be something of a bust — with a conclusion that was pretty easy to spot from the film’s very first trailer — but the character study is worthy of comparison to classic Scorsese. Fans will spot affinities with “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” and “The King of Comedy” amongst the many references to other directors’ work ranging from Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound.” The ending will definitely divide audiences; I’m a bit divided on it myself. I was initially disappointed, but the more I consider it, the more I admire how it reinforces the fact that the movie is less about a woman’s disappearance or a murder or a conspiracy than it is about one man’s struggle to cope with his guilt. That might frustrate viewers who are just looking for a simple crime story. But a Scorsese film is rarely just one thing, and “Shutter Island” is no exception.