The themes explored within Shutter Island marks a significant departure from Scorsese’s
usual awards-worthy films. There is no consideration of a society at
odds, nor any insight into a criminal uprising in America. Instead,
Marty presents a horror film, his first since 1991’s Cape Fear,
which, on paper at least, seems like a simple B-movie with overwrought
film noir elements and pseudo-psychological issues. On screen, however,
the plot unravels with stunning visual flair, blending surreal feverish
dream sequences with an artificial-looking real world to evoke an eerie
sense of the unnatural.
Set in 1954, the movie starts with US Marshal Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) meeting his new partner Chuck (Ruffalo)
on the way to investigate the mystery of an escaped patient at an
isolated mental institute on Shutter Island. As the facts don’t quite
add up and the hospital doctors, in particular Dr Cawley (Kingsley), seem intent on preventing access to patient records, Teddy starts to suspect a larger conspiracy at hand.
But it seems he has his own secrets. Haunted by visions of his wife (Williams)
who died in a house fire, as well as reliving traumatic memories of
murdering German soldiers while liberating a Jewish concentration camp,
Teddy begins to pursue his own agenda on the island. As he digs deeper,
it seems that no one in the institute can be trusted, including his own
partner, and the investigation into the institute’s practices soon leads
to Teddy questioning his own sanity.
As the story unfolds into increasingly unhinged situations, Scorsese is, of course, still in control, using seemingly fresh cinematic techniques to complement the film’s spiralling descent into madness.
The B-movie overtones throughout the film are very deliberately
expressed to highlight the bogus nature of the story. In the first five
minutes, a scene on a ship’s deck appears far too super-imposed and the
dialogue seems unusually clichéd, but it soon becomes obvious this is
just the smoke and mirrors that help to sell an immaculately composed
tale of lunacy. These false aspects to the film help to make Teddy seem
more detached from those around him and depict the ‘real world’ as less
tangible for our protagonist. It’s a brave move on Scorsese’s part, but
one that works to brilliant effect, helping to create a sinister, almost
Lynchian, atmosphere where nothing seems real.
The director’s perfect handling of the plot is matched
scene-for-scene by the film’s lead. In what will mark his fourth
collaboration with the bushy-browed auteur, DiCaprio delivers a superbly nuanced performance as
Teddy, a character who, on the surface, is a typical noiresque
anti-hero but who hides a devastating past that bubbles behind every
glance. While Leo convinces as a man who is constantly suppressing a
dangerously aggressive side, he comes close to a career best during the
film’s heartbreaking final scenes.
It is a small shame, however, that the story’s climax doesn’t quite
live up to the main tone of the rest of the movie. The shocking
revelation that comes at the end of the movie won’t fool those that like
to second-guess plot twists, and all the loose ends are too neatly tied
up for a film that presents an otherwise illusory enigma. It seems
uncommon to complain about an ending which leaves no question unanswered
but, in this case, the fun is more in the mystery.
That said, the story ultimately comes a welcome second place to
Marty’s expert direction, meaning that, with glorious set-pieces like a
scene in which Teddy and Chuck struggle through a hazardous storm, and
spectacular effects as when Teddy’s wife crumbles into embers and ash in
his arms, Scorsese elevates this film far above other movies in the
psychological horror genre, proving once again that he is a cinematic