In that sense I find this film to be a smashing success all outside of a single performance, unfortunately that is Leonardo DiCaprio's leading turn as the federal marshal investigator Teddy Daniels. DiCaprio is the one actor who doesn't seem to understand the tone oddly enough with his excessively intense performance. His work is miscalculated in that it doesn't properly embrace the style but it also gives away the twist through how unhinged he is from the opening scene. A more astute turn for example should have portrayed his opening distress slightly more vague as one should have been able to interpret it as just sea sickness or something else, not obviously something else. Thankfully though DiCaprio is the only off-turn in the film, meanwhile the rest of the film has a terrific ensemble with a particularly brilliant bit of casting as you have various cinematic villains suggesting something is off on this psychiatric island, and not just the patients. There's the Zodiac killer and Buffalo Bill leading the guards, Freddie Kruger hiding in the dark, with Ming the Merciless and Don Logan leading the doctor which brings me to Ben Kingsley.
Kingsley though he originally made his name playing renowned pacifist Mahatmas Gandhi his latter career has often been as the heavy which leaves him in good company with Ted Levine, Jackie Earle Haley, Max von Sydow and John Carroll Lynch on this strange island. What is notable about all those performances, along with Patricia Clarkson, Michelle Williams, and Emily Mortimer as various mysterious women Teddy meets is their mastery of the tone the film is looking for. Kingsley excels best in this which is in part to bring just the right touch of flamboyance, not too much, just the right amount and natural to the character. Kingsley certainly does this in giving the right style and grace of proper psychiatric doctor. There is an emphasis on measure of class in the doctor's manner that is wonderfully realized by Kingsley that adds so well to a bit of his more stylized lines that also makes them natural to the character. I have particular affection for the way Kingsley delivers the line "It's as if she evaporated straight through the walls" when describing the possible method of escape for the missing patient. Kingsley takes that heightened style and makes it all the more vibrant without going over the top, rather amplifying it in the right way.
Of course this being a twisty thriller, and Kingsley playing a man of good nature just doesn't seem right. There is something off about Kingsley's performance but only as it relates to realizing the twist though not in the way one would initially expect. With all these villains you have to be sure that the good Dr. Cawley must be evil, and Teddy's onto something when he thinks there may be unlawful experiments going on the island. Kingsley is brilliant in the way he maneuvers this aspect of the character. On initial viewing he is rather off-putting in a low key way. Kingsley has this certain eeriness in the way he speaks of past psychiatric measures, and the way he interacts with Teddy. Kingsley portrays this keen interest the doctor has in Teddy as though he is perhaps looking for some sort of weakness, and the way he speaks to him Kingsley exerts this gentle persuasion that carries a certain menace within his genial matter. The doctor never seems phased by the lost patient and there is something seemingly quite disturbing in this and something seems to be increasingly not right about the good doctor as the film continues.
Kingsley seems all set for the classical revelation of the attempted comforting paternal figure turning out to be evil not unlike James Cromwell in L.A. Confidential. There just seems to be something about his warmth that doesn't seem quite like it is placed correctly. As the story continues and the situation on the island seems to become more dire though Kingsley seems to tilt his hand in the revelation as Dr. Cawley almost openly threatens Teddy. Kingsley touches towards the absurd in his rather sinister ,overtly if not ridiculously even, way of speaking of his institute as something important something that he will not allow to be destroyed by anyone. That is of course because it suppose to be ridiculous the twist here is not that Kingsley's Cawley is evil, it's that Teddy is in fact delusional and in fact the "missing" patient. Re-watching the film I noticed just how outstanding Kingsley is in the way he offers all the clues yet doesn't give it away. The false give away towards the revelation Kingsley in fact portrays as a purposeful give away in the character of Cawley trying to get Teddy to see that his paranoia is false and frankly absurd. The real truth of Cawley is that he's good man, simple as that.
Kingsley never hides this either, except in his aforementioned major role play scene. The way he pays so much attention to Teddy, particularly when talking of water torture, Kingsley's reactions are off putting if he was doing it to a stranger, but make perfect sense for an observant doctor trying to help his patient. Kingsley is in fact throughout giving this portrayal of a devoted man tirelessly trying to help the man break from his delusions. His eyes are searching for a break, or some way to try to help the man. On re-watch his speech about being a special kind of doctor who seeks to respect and understand his patents is genuinely moving as Kingsley offers it so earnestly as the true nature of Cawley. Kingsley in fact makes it all natural to the final revelation scenes which are of Cawley trying to directly confront Teddy with the truth. I love Kingsley in this scene as he brings such an incisiveness to the words. He importantly doesn't play this as a vicious attack on man, but rather infuses every word with such palatable emotion of a man striving hard to break the man from his false world as well as save his life. Kingsley offers a real warmth and tenderness in these scenes particularly in his final shot where it seems Teddy has regressed. Kingsley reaction is quite powerful as he finds the man's heartbreak at his failure to save his patient despite his tireless efforts. This is a great performance by Ben Kingsley as he not only offers an entertaining turn by realizing the film's specific tone, yet he still manages to bridge this towards a needed substance and depth required for the film's final act.