It’s a curious decision on the part of Martin Scorsese to follow the success of his Oscar-winning crime saga The Departed with Shutter Island; a psychological thriller that would seem beneath the director’s cinematic abilities. It’s interesting to note this fact, since Scorsese did exactly the same thing two decades ago when he followed GoodFellas with his Cape Fear remake, which could also be labelled as a psychological thriller that’s beneath Scorsese’s cinematic prowess. This is something to be admired about Scorsese: despite his tendency to create gangster/crime pictures, he refuses to be pigeonholed.
Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island is an atmospheric, masterfully-crafted mind-fuck of a thriller endowed with a dense narrative. Set in 1954, the movie opens with federal marshal Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Ruffalo) travelling via boat to Shutter Island, which is home to the Ashcliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. The marshals arrive on the island to investigate the disappearance of a patient named Rachel Solando (Mortimer) who appears to have vanished without a trace. Those running the facility, Cawley (Kingsley) and Naehring (von Sydow), are less than open about what’s going on behind-the-scenes on the island, and their unhelpfulness leads Teddy to suspect that everything is not what it appears to be.
To further explain the plot would potentially ruin the experience of Shutter Island. As the narrative unfolds, more layers of the plot gradually unravel, which leads you to question every single detail. From the beginning, it’s clear something is “off”, and, as a result, it’s impossible to fully trust anything we see or anything we’re told via explication. Suffice to say, Shutter Island is such a dense motion picture that it requires more than one viewing to entirely appreciate. As a matter of fact, a second viewing is demanded, as the movie is filled with little details, clues and moments which would otherwise seem inconsequential, but adopt a starkly different meaning once the true nature of the story is known. To the credit of director Scorsese, he’s capable of keeping a viewer rapt and thoroughly engaged as each new twist is revealed. In particular, it’s hard not to bite your nails as the dynamite third act unfolds. Scorsese’s sense of pacing is impeccable, which is high praise for a movie running at over 130 minutes. However, the film’s major fault is that Scorsese perpetually keeps us at arm’s-length. Throughout the proceedings we observe the characters from a distance, and it’s difficult to empathise with them.
Right from the opening shots, Scorsese establishes an atmosphere of gloom and uncertainty that permeates the entire film, and borrows liberally from noir and conventional horror to convey this story. Scorsese expertly transports viewers to this frightening world, and it feels as if the movie was truly shot within a 1950s asylum due to the authenticity and ominous nature that’s established through masterful cinematography, production design, music and sound. Scorsese took advantage of every opportunity to fill his frame with something unsettling, such as a sequence within a Civil War-era building whichs feel like something from a balls-out horror movie. Shutter Island is simply one of Scorsese’s best-looking motion pictures to date; full of arresting imagery and spellbinding compositions courtesy of expert cinematographer Robert Richardson, and assembled with great zeal by Scorsese’s veteran editor Thelma Schoonmaker. While the musical score is indeed effective most of the time, it’s occasionally too overbearing, imposing and distracting.
In this, Leonardo DiCaprio’s fourth collaboration with Scorsese (clearly he’s the director’s new go-to actor in the post-De Niro era), the star turns in another strong, mature performance. Much like The Departed, Scorsese and DiCaprio have created a spellbinding portrait of a man on the verge of losing his grip. There are layers to DiCaprio’s exceptional performance that should become more evident during additional viewings, and he’s clearly one of few actors who can bring such a superb level of depth, complexity and subtlety to an obsessed, unhinged character. Thankfully, Scorsese filled the movie with an able supporting cast for DiCaprio. Screen legend Ben Kingsley is nuanced and creepy as one of Ashcliffe’s administrators, while Max von Sydow is positively Satanic as another. Accomplished character actor Emily Mortimer is utterly skin-crawling for every frame in which she features, while Michelle Williams is ethereal and at times enthralling as a hallucinatory vision of Teddy’s deceased wife. Mark Ruffalo unfortunately ends up feeling rather short-changed in the role as Teddy’s partner, but he remains watchable and effective nonetheless.
Prior to Shutter Island, two of Dennis Lehane’s novels were successfully converted into motion pictures. Clint Eastwood adapted Mystic River in 2003, and in 2007, Ben Affleck helmed an adaptation of Gone Baby Gone. Hollywood’s decision makers would be wise to purchase the rights to the rest of Lehane’s books if they haven’t already, as the man’s stories appear to bring out the best in filmmakers. And now, Scorsese is the latest director to mine gold from Lehane’s challenging prose with this compelling, well-made thriller that grabs you early on and refuses to loosen its grasp. It was a worrying decision for Paramount Pictures to move Shutter Island from its comfortable October release slot to the wastelands of February, and it sparked discussion about the quality of the final product. While this release date shift may have implied the movie is of subpar quality, it’s in fact a solid, Oscar-worthy tour de force.