But for a total collapse at the end, “Shutter Island,” directed by Martin Scorsese, written by Laeta Kalogridis and Dennis Lehane, would have been a great film. Using magnificent visuals and a slow, dramatic build-up, Scorsese successfully evokes both the 1954 atmosphere of an island asylum for the criminally insane and, in flashback-snippets, the 1945 liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. Leonardo DiCaprio turns in a memorable performance as Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall allegedly sent to the island to investigate the disappearance of one of the inmates. The movie also features very good performances by Mark Ruffalo as Chuck Aule, his deputy, Ben Kingsley as Dr. Cawley, the island’s director, and Max von Sydow, an alleged Nazi scientist. But Scorsese overplays the climactic scene and makes you walk out of the theatre wondering WTF, amazed at such a blatant manipulation of the audience.
The story takes place in 1954 in an asylum for the criminally insane housed on an island off the New England coast. Federal Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are sent to investigate the disappearance of an inmate, Rachel. In the course of their investigation they find evidence of government-sponsored medical experiments similar to those that the Nazis performed in concentration camps. This triggers in Teddy two guilt-riddled flashbacks: he had liberated Dachau concentration camp but had participated in the historically-true massacre of SS guards; and his wife had allegedly been murdered when someone set their house on fire and he wasn’t there to save her.
The story progresses with escalating psychological suspense, fueled by Teddy’s deteriorating mental state and his desire to exact revenge on the arsonist who allegedly was an inmate in the asylum. Lots of close-ups on DiCaprio reveal his manic anguish; his voice, his body language show a man on the verge of total collapse. Then, as suggested through a few well-veiled early hints, the story does a 180: Teddy had been an asylum inmate for two years because he had murdered Dolores (Michelle Williams), his bipolar wife, after she drowned their three children. The content of the first part of the movie was really a radical role playing treatment Dr. Cawley had concocted – let Teddy (that’s not even his real name) think he was a Marshal – to see if he would finally admit his delusional fantasies. It almost worked.
Playing what amounts to two characters – a Marshal on a mission of vengeance, a mentally ill patient playing a Marshal on a mission of vengeance - DiCaprio turns in a masterful performance. The role required him to simultaneously play a memory-haunted man who couldn’t let go of his dead wife and a deranged man who had killed her: he had to convince us to buy into both his characters and he did. Rufalo simultaneously played Teddy’s partner as well as his primary care physician. He had to make us believe he was both a loyal partner and a potentially diabolical scientist. He did. And Ben Kinglsey made us think he was both an evil asylum administrator as well as a benevolent administrator.
But once the audience is let in on the movie’s little secret the narrative goes back to the fated day when Teddy discovers what his wife has done. Instead of abruptly ending the movie with that jarring moment of realization in the lighthouse, Scorsese spends too much time replaying the actual event. It disrupted the flow of an otherwise well-paced movie, making the end result for us the same as it was for Teddy, a cranial lobotomy if not a cinematic one.