In Shutter Island, the locale in question is called Ashecliffe. It’s an asylum sequestered on a spooky, weatherbeaten island off the Massachusetts coast, a sort of Alcatraz east. It has water on all sides, including above when the hurricane comes, and much sinister readymade melodrama within.
Martin Scorsese cast Leonardo DiCaprio as leading man for their first foray into the horror genre, in Shutter Island.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Teddy, a working-class Boston boy. What else do we know about him? He served in the second World War, and was present for the liberation of Dachau. Later, he had a wife (Michelle Williams), but she died. These things haunt him. And he doesn’t like water. Now, in 1954, he has a deferential new partner named Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), who seems uneasy with a pistol and calls him “boss” a lot, even though he’s older than him. Together they must track down a filicidal escapee from an insane asylum that’s run by Ben Kingsley.
You might think, Who puts Ben Kingsley in charge of an insane asylum? Would you believe a former Nazi played by Max Von Sydow? But that’s the beauty of Martin Scorsese’s film of Dennis Lehane’s novel: It is willing to go there, even if the going takes a labyrinthine two and a half hours.
Whenever Teddy describes its inhabitants as prisoners or inmates, Kingsley’s silky psychiatrist firmly corrects him. “Patients,” he says. Patience? Apparently there are more ways than one to see and hear things on this shudder island. It’s the age of electroshock and atomic paranoia, and everyone seems to hope against hope that soothing revelations will be forthcoming.
Meanwhile, Teddy confides to Chuck that he’s had his eye on this place—that the man responsible for his wife’s death might be here. Then he starts getting headaches. His flashbacks seem increasingly like delusions, and his dreams start collapsing into each other. And just when he’s had enough of the hospital staff stonewalling his investigation, the missing patient conveniently turns up. Less conveniently, she turns up twice—first as Emily Mortimer, then as Patricia Clarkson.
Add to this the insinuation of some hellish HUAC brainwashing program, and the lighthouse of lobotomies, and inmate Jackie Earle Haley raving portentously in the dungeon of Ward C, and warden Ted Levine threatening to eat our beleaguered hero’s eyeball, and you get…well, a bit of a mess, but a thrilling one to be sure.
It seems like Scorsese is quite enjoying this rather commercial genre exercise. It lets him swim with his many influences, and it lets him prove again his faith in DiCaprio, who might seem miscast at first but ultimately delivers.
What we know about Teddy does evolve, but only according to what he knows about himself—which is at least enough to ask, “What would be worse: to live as a monster or to die as a good man?”