It’s not difficult for the adept moviegoer to predict the direction Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island travels; the fun is in the ride. The Oscar-winning director has crafted a psychologically charged thriller that is as much about recapturing a classical style of filmmaking as it is a showcase for the acting talents of star Leonardo DiCaprio.
The plot is familiar enough: In 1954, a pair of “duly appointed federal marshals” (an irresistibly fun phrase to imitate with a Boston accent) arrive on Shutter Island to visit Ashcliffe, the federal mental hospital for the criminally insane. A woman named Rachel has vanished, and it’s up to Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to find her. As a threatening storm places the island on lock down and Dr. Cowley (Sir Ben Kingsley) begins playing mind games with the marshals, Teddy must battle through delusions, drugs, and hysteria to discover the truth behind Rachel’s disappearance and relive his own horrific wartime experiences in the process.
Like I said: if you’ve seen the trailer, you know this movie is going to tackle the tried and true question, “what is real?” Thematically, the film this instantly reminded me of is Total Recall, the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick directed by Paul Verhoeven. Like that film, Shutter Island presents a world in which reality is called into question, and it’s our job as the audience to sift through the details and discover the truth for ourselves. Tonally, the movie reminds me more of an old Vincent Price film; the “trapped on an island” setup and mind games lend well to recapturing the claustrophobia of 1940’s film noir (Key Largo comes to mind). Scorsese’s style also fits this mold well – his use of close ups help to force the viewer in for a closer look (mirroring Teddy’s journey) and he employs quick cuts to keep the audience slightly uneasy and uncertain of anything they are seeing.
The score, an eerie mix of previously recorded songs, was put together by Scorsese’s frequent collaborator Robbie Robertson. Surprisingly, it works extremely well, providing an old school vibe that is overpowering at points. (The introduction to the island in the opening scene is fantastic.) But the uncomfortably loud volume (again, only at certain points) definitely served its purpose, driving the audience into their seats and cringing to escape the pulsating strings and deep orchestral tones. In Shutter Island, the score is used as yet another manipulation, keeping the viewer off balance and intensely aware of every detail.
For the sake of full disclosure, let it be known that I’m a huge fan of Leonardo DiCaprio – so take this next paragraph with a grain of salt. DiCaprio is my favorite actor working today, and his performance here was outstanding. The movie itself has a sort of B-movie vibe to it, not taking itself too seriously and allowing certain aspects (like Ben Kingsley’s performance) to be wonderfully over the top. DiCaprio’s performance, on the other hand, was as straight as an arrow. We needed him to be believable since everything on the island is questionable. He takes us on a personal journey and we can feel every emotion seething through him on the screen. We completely buy into his viewpoint, and Scorsese and Co. knew that the entire film rides on this performance. The actor is fairly selective about his film projects and always strives to push himself into a challenging role, and Teddy Daniels was different enough from other characters he’s played to meet his needs. If this movie was released back in October of 2009 as initially planned, we would most likely be discussing the battle between Jeff Bridges and Leonardo DiCaprio for Best Actor at the upcoming Academy Awards.
The cinematography is striking, avoiding cheap camera tricks in favor of a classical shooting style that retains suspense and simultaneously borders on beautiful. The disorienting aura surrounding Teddy’s flashbacks and slowly infiltrating his existence is translated skillfully through the camera, allowing us the luxury of an enjoyable ride even if we know (or at least suspect) where the path will end.
The script, written by Laeta Kalogridis and based on Dennis Lehane’s novel, is complex and layered, giving Teddy a solid arc and providing a captivating commentary about living with guilt. Teddy’s flashback sequences, both of his days as a soldier at the liberation of Dachau and memories of his deceased wife, are well placed throughout the movie’s run time. Small-but-solid parts for Jackie Earle Haley and Max von Sydow also add to the creepy and moody atmosphere.
Overall, Shutter Island is my favorite movie of the year so far. It’s tight, suspenseful, well-acted, well-directed, and well-shot. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. Even if you think you’ve figured out the “twist” from the trailers, it’s still a joy to watch Scorsese give us a film that so wholly embraces its film noir roots and, as an added bonus, features DiCaprio’s most complex role in years. Until next time…