The last time I heard tell of an island or institution “for the criminally insane”, it was in a Batman comic book. Wouldn’t you know it, the Joker was on the loose again.  In truth, the territory of insanity and mental institutions has produced some great cinematic works over the years, among them The Shining, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and any number of films by Hitchcock. But since that era the topic of insanity has been mostly used as a “motivation” for schlock villains with hooks, power tools or scary masks (Dr. Lecter, call on line one).

That is until Shutter Island, Martin Scorcese’s first narrative effort since winning the Academy Award for The Departed in 2006. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as 1950’s U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, who travels to an island for the criminally insane to investigate the disappearance of one of the convicts from their locked cell.  In the first reel of the film DiCaprio roams and attacks with the intensity (and unexpectedly, the look) of Jack Nicholson, and Scorcese certainly has his eye set on giants like Hitchcock and Kubrick.

Unfortunately, somewhere in the second act the film fills out like a fallen cake.  For all his considerable ability, Scorcese seems like he’s not quite sure whether or not to really give himself to the thriller genre.  Some nice visual moments and dream sequences tease as to what might have been, but aren’t developed into an overall vision.  And for as much as the schlock horror films are, well, schlock, Scorcese and cinematographer Ralph Richardson could have benefited from considering the cheap, edgy feel to be found in scary movies today. At some point the visual feel is simply too clean and even pretty for a mental institution. 

If you’ve heard anything about the film, you’ve undoubtedly heard tell of a third act twist that “changes everything.” I guess that’s true, although I must say by the time it was revealed, it seemed both pretty obvious and not that interesting.  At this point, how many new twists are really possible when it comes to a guy who’s visiting a mental institution? And say what you will about some of M. Night Shyamalan’s more recent efforts, The Sixth Sense set the bar high for a good twist ending.  Shutter Island just can’t make the leap. 

2.5 out of 5 Loony Bins. 

Jim McDermott, SJ