When I saw the previews, Shutter Island looked like a supernatural, gory horror flick. I was not interested. Then several people recommended the movie and told me I’d enjoy it. So off to the movies we went on Easter Sunday afternoon. The theater was surprisingly empty. The weather was great in San Diego, after a day of rain on Saturday. The skies were bright and clear, it was cool out but sunny, and most people wanted to spend the day outdoors, not in a theater. It was just as the lights went down for the previews when the earthquake hit. The seats rocked, the concrete under our feet vibrated, a few scared cries echoed in the mostly empty theater, and some people started getting up to leave, when after about 30 seconds of shaking, the world became solid again. Thus was our introduction to Shutter Island.
When we got up and walked out a couple of hours later, as the credits rolled, we kept asking ourselves and the people near us whether the earthquake really had happened, or whether that too was just our imagination, a mass hallucination or perhaps just a bad dream.
Shutter Island is a mystery thriller. The lead character is a federal marshal named Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), who with his partner, is sent to Shutter Island, a prison island off the coast of Boston, which houses a maximum security facility for the criminally insane. Supposedly a female prisoner had escaped from a locked room without a trace. The marshals try to investigate what had happened. As they dig deeper, they find inconsistencies in the stories of the medical staff, the guards and the prisoners themselves that make them doubt everything and trust nobody.
Of course, a prison with criminally insane people can only exist before a backdrop of inclement weather, hurricanes that tear down large trees and rain that seems to penetrate solid rock walls. Some of the prisoners are kept naked in dungeons, which seems inconsistent with the message of treating the insanity, but it fits the plot. There is a mysterious lighthouse accessible apparently only by swimming through treacherous surf in ice-cold water. The head psychiatrist, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) lives in a civil-war era mansion. The guards all look like Nazis, and some of the prisoners definitely are insane.
As the story unfolds, it goes from plausible and explainable, one step at a time to uncertainty, doubt, fear and later actual terror. What the heck is going on? Things get stranger by the minute. We get the feeling that nothing is quite what it seems. Like in the classic movie American Beauty, where we know all along that nothing is what it seems, in Shutter Island we get the same feeling, but in a sinister and frightening sort of way. The human brain can be very powerful and also very dangerous, and human imagination, guided or misguided, plays a powerful role in this film.
I didn’t know or realize that this was a Martin Scorsese movie, until the final credits started. Well, that explains everything. I got up, and, as I said in the beginning, I asked myself if there really had been an earthquake, or if I had imagined the whole thing.