Martin Scorsese. Leonardo DiCaprio. Ben Kingsley. Max Von Sydow. Mark Ruffalo. If there’s one thing Shutter Island isn’t lacking in, it’s talent. Based on the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name, the plot is fairly straightforward and could have come out of any low-budget film noir/crime thriller made in the ’70s or ’80s. An ex-serviceman US Marshal (Leonardo DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels) and his new partner (Mark Ruffalo’s Chuck Aule) are sent to investigate the disappearance of a patient from the titular Shutter Island, an island institution for the criminally insane. They meet seemingly the benevolent head doctor (Ben Kingsley’s Dr. Cawley) and his slightly bizarre assistant (Max von Sydow’s Dr. Naehring), and when a sudden storm stops the detectives leaving the island, they begin to wonder if something isn’t rotten in the state of Denmark, and the lines between sane/insane and doctor/detective/patient start to blur…
As setups go, it’s not the most original, similar films have been being churned out for a long time; but in the same way that Quentin Tarantino’s experiment Grindhouse was an homage to the films that inspired him, so too Scorsese’s latest is ostensibly an effort to recreate and re-envision a genre that made him want to make movies. So we get a crash course through the classic B-movie thriller tropes – lights going out, lightning storms in graveyards, a protagonist with a murky past, conspiracies and angular camerawork.
This is all well and good, because from the minute we see Shutter Island, we take these clichés to be self-evident, and Scorsese to his credit engineers them with a deft hand; we can really sense the director’s love for this genre and style, which is admirable in an era of people behind the camera who are in it for the cash. Obviously, however, this also leads to a few hackneyed scenes which don’t gel quite as well with the insanely clever (pun intended) central concepts, and whilst they’re a bit of fun, they could be trimmed.
However, these few scenes do fall into the back of the mind as the film continues. Shutter Island, for the most part, is an intensely gripping, winding thriller with shocks to counter the schlock, deceit to match its conceit. The island is creepily portrayed: not just the anaesthetic whites of the halls, but the crumbling brickwork of Ward C (where, we’re told, the most dangerous inmates reside – cue scary violin music) and the Gothic interior of Dr. Cawley’s abode. It’s an intentionally over-stylised environment which makes for some intriguing long shots as we scan the place for clues; as Teddy and Chuck become increasingly suspicious of Cawley’s motives, the viewer becomes detective, trying to unpack a complex mystery.
However, you’ve got no chance of doing it. The final act is superbly constructed, set up by a first two-thirds of creepy wartime flashbacks, eerie dream sequences and unsettling exposition, and when things are unravelled, the plot is brilliantly twisted to breaking point. DiCaprio’s Daniels, ever at the centre of things, is pulled this way and that by the ghost of his dead wife (an interesting if distant Michelle Williams), the desire to solve the case and his own sense of moral intuition. It’s really a virtuoso performance in which he not only shows his capability with accents (this time a thick Bostonian – he pahks the cah in the yahd and soforth), but also well-rounded and well-developed acting chops: he handles the highly emotional flashbacks, the surreal dreams and bizarre reality with adeptness and deftness. Although notionally an ensemble cast, it’s really DiCaprio’s movie, and one in which he is magnetic start to finish.
Of course, that’s not to deride the film’s other stars. Kingsley’s Dr. Cawley is a crafted creation (although bizarrely his English accent sounds odd at times, despite being English) who we can never really believe, his outward philanthropy undercut by recurrently unsettling sentiments. Ruffalo, as has become his style, slides in perfectly as Chuck – you’d never know he wasn’t a real guy – and on the back of supporting performances like this (and Zodiac) he will hopefully get some more lead roles in the future. Von Sydow is typically engaging in a genre role, his wrinkled face always seems full of secrets we can’t guess at, and his shady past is not overstated, rather implied.
Shutter Island is, at its heart, a noir mystery, and whilst Scorsese elects to embrace some familiar genre tropes, he combines these with some genuine jumps, a cluster of proper ‘fuck-I-never-saw-that-coming’ twists and once again gets the best out of DiCaprio who steals much of the show. It’s a cracking picture, one which harks back to the good old days of cinema without regressing and twists its plot without us feeling as sick as Daniels feels on the ferry in the opening scene. Clearly it can’t compete with the master director’s best, but it’s still splendid.
8/10: A lovingly crafted genre piece which highlights not only Scorsese’s evident love for the medium and style of film noir, but also the calibre of DiCaprio’s acting and the brilliance of the source material. At points it’s nearly wrecked by a comically dreadful soundtrack (which sounds like a train platform in the 1930s), but it can’t be derailed. By turns frantic, intriguing and mysterious, it’s a wonderfully enjoyable piece of cinema which embraces the old school with the arms of the new.