Dir: Martin Scorsese Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams
US Marshall Ted Daniels (DiCaprio) has his head “halfway down the toilet bowl” for the duration of his stormy trip to Shutter Island, a dark and jagged outcrop off the coast of Boston, home to the infamous Ashcliffe Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Unfortunately for Daniels, his headaches are only just beginning…
Daniels has been called in to investigate the disappearance of a patient, Rachel Solando, and is joined by new recruit Chuck Aule (Ruffalo). But Professor Cawley (Kingsley) and his subordinates make life extremely complicated for the Marshalls, and Ted soon decides there is no point in continuing without the help of the FBI. But when a destructive hurricane strikes the coast, Ted and Chuck are stranded on the island; surrounded by rats, the criminally insane, and the morally questionable staff.
It is at this point that Ted finally confesses to Chuck why he really came to the island: Andrew Laeddis, the man who set fire to Ted’s house and killed his beloved wife, Dolores, is being held in the high-security ‘Ward C’. While checking out Laeddis, Ted also discovered a high-reaching conspiracy involving barbaric, government-run experiments in mind control conducted on Ashcliffe inmates. Suddenly a much more terrifying possibility becomes all too real… what if Ted has been lured to the island because of the threat he poses to Cawley’s experiments? And how can Ted prove his own sanity if Cawley tells the world he has lost it?
This is an unapologetically melodramatic and lugubrious take on the ‘psychological thriller’ genre, but it is also eerie and gruesome. As the classic, Soviet-styled, minimalist credits and the bombastic orchestral overture ebb away, we find Ted talking to himself in the style of a 1950s anti-hero (“It’s just the sea… just a whole lotta sea”) and stumbling through a galley filled with rusty manacles hanging from the ceiling to reach Chuck on the deck.
These early scenes –filled with jump cuts, still frames, and moaning, creaking, marine noises – also employ a purposefully obvious use of back-projection, and one of the most exhausting and pompous scores since Howard Hawkes set down his camera. There is humour, but there is also an assurance that we are watching one of the masters of the homage creating a truly ‘classic’ piece of filmmaking.
The swirling storm clouds and jagged shards of rock erupting from the ocean bed convey one very simple message from the outset: the hospital might not be a ‘prison’… but the island is. Within this dank world, however, Scorsese is not scared to bring his love of vibrant colours and purposeful production design. The hospital itself, save for the menacing ‘Ward C’, is a charming community of red brick buildings and colonial gardens; Ted and Chuck’s ties are ludicrous; the wardens uniforms resemble Gestapo regalia; and the small graveyard is straight out of a Hammer film. There is an easy comparison to be made to ‘The Wicker Man’ in all this, and Scorsese does not make those comparisons any harder to draw up.
‘Shutter Island’ is a perfect example of why Scorsese will remain underappreciated by the vast herds of cinemagoers less cine-literate than himself. It would have been so easy to strip Dennis Lehane’s novel of it’s knowing genre conventions and subtle humour, and create a brooding and edgy ‘neo-noir’ that had audiences and critics cooing throughout the festival season. But instead, Scorsese has created an uneasy hybrid of ‘Douglas-Sirk-melodrama’ and ‘Stanley-Kubrick-horror’.
Leonardo DiCaprio is engrossing as the browbeaten Marshall. His Boston accent remains faultless, and is here imbued with a sharp 50’s twang made dull by years of drinking. His well-practiced ‘grimacing-while-choking-back-tears’ face – which served him so well during his dalliance with the greatest romantic tragedy ever told, not to mention during the tale of a certain hubristic cruise liner – is once again affecting and powerful. DiCaprio has rarely put a foot wrong in his career, and his partnership with Scorsese is fast becoming the stuff that legends are made of.
This is not an easy film to enjoy unless you have a soft spot for the melodramatic thrillers and films Noir of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Scorsese has created a wonderful, personal take on a ‘classic’ style of cinematic storytelling; and while ‘Shutter Island’ may lack the pace and raw modernity of recent neo-noirs, it makes up for it in zeal and self-confidence.
To read more from Nicholas Deigman go to www.t5m.com/nicholas-deigman