Review: Shutter Island

Is it a noir? A buddy-cop flick? A psychological thriller? Yes.

By Matthew Halverson February 19, 2010

You’d have to be crazy to request an assignment at Ashecliffe Hospital. It’s on the creepiest island since Dr. Moreau’s. The criminally insane patients are less menacing than their doctors. The warden talks casually of biting off faces, and the plumbing is awful. And yet U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels claims to have a perfectly good reason for volunteering to investigate a murderous mommy’s escape: apparently this loony bin in Boston Harbor has been secretly housing the pyromaniac who torched Daniels’s apartment with his wife still inside. Plus, he suspects the shrinks of going all Dr. Mengele on the patients.

Wait, what?

There’s a lot going on in Martin Scorsese’s talky, turgid Shutter Island, based on a book by Dennis Lehane, but only brief snippets of the film’s first two thirds ever really gel. Exposition comes via massive dialogue downloads, tonal shifts—from noir caper to buddy-cop procedural to psychological thriller and back again—are as abrupt and jarring as a nervous breakdown, and Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, appropriately twitchy as a rat in a tin shithouse) asks every question but the most important one: Why does his new partner from Seattle (an underused Mark Ruffalo) drop his R’s like a mechanic from South Boston?

The confusion is intentional, a ploy to make us sympathize with Daniels as the investigation threatens to melt his brain, but Scorsese is so intent on bending our minds with the G-man’s flashbacks to WWII, dreams of his dead wife, and Technicolor hallucinations of inmates run amok that the final act’s big reveal is more “no kidding” than “oh snap.” It’s a revelation that begs for repeat business, but unlike a twist that, on second viewing, adds nuance to the clues that came before it, this one just feels like sleight of hand meant to save a rote thriller.

Shutter Island opens in theaters today.

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