*SPOILER ALERT: Although I don't give away any explicit spoilers, any intelligent person who reads this review first, will easily figure out what is happening. Not that you even need to read this review for that, IMO. Anyway, alert ends*
This movie, had it been made say 15 years ago, before Memento or Fight Club or even the absolutely kitschy Identity, would probably have been hailed as a memorable one worthy of the all-time top 50. But in 2010, with so many other movies foreshadowing what is happening, it fails to thrill to the extent that Scorsese probably intended.
To make matters worse, all the promos of the movie on TV keep telling audiences they will be blown away by the twist in the movie. Once you even know there is a twist, it is blindingly obvious what it is going to be. And as Bharath noted
, Scorsese does the movie no favors by repeatedly dropping some hints that if you were a) clueless, help you to correctly figure out the twist, or b) suspicious, confirm what you had been suspected since the first 20 minutes of the film.
Having said that, it is still a pretty good movie, and worth watching once. Especially worth watching on the big screen, for the creepy and mindbuggering audio-visual layout. Robert Richardson, the studly cinematographer behind such gems as Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds, has outdone himself in creating a haunting, ultra-dominant and inescapable atmosphere of the island that completely pulls you in. Even after figuring out what is going to happen, you stay engrossed chiefly because of the cinematography.
And of course, the performances, all brilliant. Dicaprio is the most unrewarded, if not underrated actor of our times. In terms of acting, he hits it out of the park, but Scorsese forcing him to tip his hand plot-wise takes the sheen off it. Ben Kingsley is an imposing presence, and perfectly manages to portray the amalgam of ruthless efficiency and genuine compassion that his character is all about. But the best of the lot for me was Mark Ruffalo, another under-rated actor I have been a fan of since he, IMHO overshadowed Downy in Zodiac. Ruffalo's character is also possibly the best written in the movie, and he is the only one who in the end manages to sail through the pledge, the turn and the prestige.
The who the what and the huh?
Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call "The Prestige"."
- Cutter (Michael Caine) in Christopher Nolan's The Prestige
One of my favorite movie lines of all time. With such universal applicability. So I am going to use them here. Movies like Shutter Island are elaborate magic tricks. Where it falls short is, that even before the Pledge and especially after the Turn, it actually goads you to look for the secret. You don't really want to know, but it refuses to let you delude yourself. And after you figure it out, it mostly fails on the Prestige. Except for Ruffalo's character.
Scorsese should still be commended for wandering into such unfamiliar territory, so late in his career, and coming out relatively unscathed. And he does show his genius in the end. When, even after the big and by-now anti-climatic revelation, he leaves you wondering. With Dicaprio's final line that goes...
OKAY NOW THIS GOES REALLY TOTALLY INTO FULL FLEDGED SPOILER TERRITORY, SO STOP IF YOU WANT
"Which would be worse, to live as a monster or to die as a good man?" Leaves you wondering, is he more like Lenny from Memento, willfully wrapping himself in a purposeful delusion? Or is he like whatzizname from Identity, someone who can't help it?
I say it's the former. And that's what makes you leave the theater on a satisfied note. If only the skill shown with that last line had been applied throughout the movie. And, well, more importantly, is only the movie had been made 15 years ago. Because no matter how much better Scorsese had made it, in 2010, really, most sentient beings should be able to figure out the twist half an hour into the movie.