Martin Scorsese’s thriller Shutter Island has more in common with Angel Heart than Jacob’s Ladder, if “unraveling hero” comparisons are necessary. By his own terms: it is more interested in the descent into madness than The Aviator; more about men seeking truth at the risk of their own souls than men seeking justice (through violence, as in Cape Fear). Shutter Island is a dense, elegant and sorrowful film that knows all the old trickery, yet performs effortlessly to the last shot. It is another great film by the American master, though it feels less like a Scorsese film than anything he’s done in the last three decades.
It’s 1954: Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, who seems quite at home in his fourth Scorsese film) is a man brimming with issues. When we first see him, he’s physically sick, puking into a basin on a ferry headed to the titular island in Boston Harbor. There, Ashecliffe Hospital for the very violent, criminally insane awaits.
Teddy has a lot on his mind: a new but amiable partner (Mark Ruffalo) he’s never met, wince-inducing memories of his wartime experiences (liberating concentration camps), and the crushing loss of his wife in an apartment fire. An urgent request for help from Ashecliffe, where an inmate is missing, must take precedence in Teddy’s mind, but the horrors and sorrows of his past keep intruding on his investigation. He quickly surmises three things: both the hospital staff and the patients are aware of something, no one wants to talk about it, and trust is in low supply.
Ashecliffe’s serene head of staff, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) accommodates the marshals, but clearly someone above him is pulling strings. Files cannot be accessed. Information cannot be shared. Cawley’s subordinate Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) is less polite: he immediately begins testing Teddy, provoking defense mechanisms and gauging his reactions. But Teddy’s detective skills are an equal match to the doctor’s psychological finesse. After a day of runarounds and empty leads, Teddy decides they’ll take the ferry back the following morning and file a report, washing their hands of the matter. But a hurricane is approaching, and leaving Shutter Island seems more daunting with every hour. It quickly becomes clear that the question isn’t so much who is committing a crime, as what crime is being committed?
While DiCaprio makes the film his own, he has a substantial supporting cast filled with many fleeting, powerful performances. Jackie Earle Haley and Elias Koteas are strong as inmates who figure into the investigation; Emily Mortimer is eerily effective as a deluded multiple murderess; John Carroll Lynch is a by-the-book guard who manages the facility’s security with cautious certainty. His boss is The Warden (Ted Levine), a forbidding fellow who shows up late in the game but makes his will known to DiCaprio’s marshal in very explicit terms.
Scorsese’s crafty applications of grandly melodramatic music, sound effects, dazzling light and murky shadow punctuate every scene, yet never distract from the persistent unease that builds ever-so slowly throughout the film. The director seems to have left behind his trademark flourishes; only a few recognizable camera moves are found in early scenes. Nor does his expertise overwhelm the story, based on the Dennis Lahane novel of the same name.
It is a terrifically fun experience, more of a queasy funhouse ride than anything he’s made, even if in doing so it loses a degree of depth and memorability. But like Inglourious Basterds, Shutter Island has long, artful passages where the drama’s heavy lifting balances the pure pulp surrounding it. The film also has several nods to Alfred Hitchcock, a spine-tingling use of vermin, and a suitable, perhaps even dignified, ending.
Alongside The Departed, Shutter Island comes across as the director’s most accessible work, though that label should not be confused with “his best”.