I read that Martin Scorsese forced the cast of “Shutter Island” to watch “Vertigo” before shooting began, because he wanted to recreate the mood of Hitchcock’s classic film. I’d say he did that successfully – like “Vertigo”, “Shutter Island” gives off strong paranoid vibes.
The films have more in common than their mood, in fact. Both are about a cop trying to make sense of the mess of deceptions he’s been dropped in the middle of. The protagonists of both films are haunted by traumatic memories and become fixated on their mental image of a certain woman. Both are set in the 1950s. “Shutter Island” even has a few vertigo-inducing scenes of its own.
Shutter Island’s traumatized cop, Eddie Daniels, is played by Leonardo DiCaprio with a permanent worried frown. Daniels is tormented by the death of wife in a fire set by an arsonist a few years ago, as well as by what he saw when he participated in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp in World War II. He’s sent to a craggy island near Boston to investigate the disappearance of an inmate at the maximum-security mental hospital there. Joining him is his loyal partner Chuck, played by Mark Ruffalo, who has aged enough in the five years since he played a twenty-something hipster in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that he can now play a forty-something detective.
The island provides a striking setting. Its shores, buffeted by monsoon waves, consist of cliffs that look like they belong in the Pacific Northwest (do these even exist in Massachusetts?). The not-quite-so-maximum-security part of the mental institution looks like an Ivy League campus, but looming in the background is a damp Civil War-era fortress where the most dangerous inmates reside. For most of Daniels’ stay, the island is in the midst of a storm so powerful it topples down trees that almost kill him and his partner.
This creepy setting provides some suspenseful moments, such as the scene when Daniels roams the dark hallways of the Civil War fortress in search of his wife’s killer, whom he discovers may be a patient there.
The depressing, perilous atmosphere also compliments the film’s portrayal of the barbaric state of psychiatry of the 1950s, when lobotomies were still performed. Ben Kingsley, playing the hospital administrator, lectures Daniels on the two competing modes of thought in the psychiatry of their times: the old school, which uses treatments like lobotomies eagerly, and the new school, which believes such treatments should only be used as a last resort after counseling has failed.
Kingsley’s character claims to be of the new school, but Daniels begins to suspect that the hospital is performing sinister experiments on the island and that the missing patient investigation is a sham meant to bring him there for other reasons. He and his partner spend a few days sneaking around the hospital and its surroundings in an effort to figure things out. Like James Stewart’s character in “Vertigo”, Daniels comes to doubt even his own perception of events.
I found myself deeply involved in Daniels’ search for the truth of the island. Like Daniels, I accepted things as they appeared at first – a cop is sent to an island to look for a missing inmate – and I shared his surprise when he discovers there’s more going on. I felt the same fascination with the plot as when I watched “Fight Club” and, yes, “Vertigo”, two other movies that lead you to question the sanity of their characters.
The film must be faulted for finally revealing the truth in one of those long monologues delivered by the orchestrator of things. It would be better if the lead discovered the reality on his own, like James Stewart did in “Vertigo” (which shall be mentioned no more in this post).
Overall, however, “Shutter Island” is a clever, entertaining, sometimes frightening film. I’m glad that Scorsese is still capable of making such good films at age 67 – almost ten years older than Alfred Hitchcock was in 1958 when he made a certain psychological thriller starring James Stewart as a troubled cop.