Often in movies, too many red herrings makes for a lame duck; so when approaching stories laden with conspiracy, paranoia, insanity and doubt, you’re either in for a gripping experience or a bewildering mess. Unsurprisingly, with over 30 years direction experience under his belt, Martin Scorsese has turned Dennis Lehane’s 2003 best seller Shutter Island into the former.
Having long since strayed from his fertile actor-director relationship with Robert DeNiro, Scorsese’s current muse, Leonardo DiCaprio, gets the starring role in a cast featuring a real mixture of talents; from the presence of Sir Ben Kingsley to criminally underrated supporting actors like Jackie Earle Haley and Mark Ruffalo. Whilst both Ruffalo and Haley are sadly somewhat underused, the film is bolstered by their watertight performances – Ruffalo especially as DiCaprio’s US Marshall partner Chuck Aule. Indeed the entire cast play off against DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels with glee; Max Von Sydow’s Dr. Naehring engages in tense verbal sparring with DiCaprio’s brash, emotional US. Marshall, whilst Ted Levine’s sinister Warden, though only a bit part, is as attention grabbing as his near-Nazi regalia.
Shutter Island focuses on the investigations of Ruffalo and DiCaprio’s US Marshalls into a missing inmate on the detached asylum of Shutter Island. Far removed from the mainland, this particular peninsula is home to the most dangerous and psychotic mental patients. Overseen by Kingsley’s Dr. Cawley, the film follows Daniels and Aule as they attempt to unravel the mysterious disappearance with the seemingly unwilling staff.
Shifting slyly from a first half of deftly enacted mystery and often unbearable tension to an intense atmosphere of suspicion and fear, the Hitchcockian elements of this shady mystery add weight to the pervasive air of paranoia and mistrust. Then add the gritty shades of 1940’s noir and the tinges of gothic horror and you start to see the masterful way in which Scorsese has constructed a world of such suspicion that even the tiniest twinge of doubt means, like DiCaprio’s Daniels, you don’t know who to trust. The film refuses to settle with being second-guessed; few films can carry off a plot quite so labyrinthe, so intent to mislead and fling your concepts in different directions and still manage to avoid becoming overly convoluted or absurd.
Scorsese treats each scene with the touches that you’ve come to expect from his mastery of direction.
Dream sequences are enacted with stunning cinematography and visual flair, whilst when the film calls for images of a more harrowing nature, these grizzly moments are gifted to the audience in abundance. Some scenes, especially Daniels’ occasional flashbacks, are a mixture of considerable brutality and awe-inspiringly masterful camera work. Even the island itself is shot in excellent style; the feeling of isolation and separation is considerable and absorbing, almost crafting the locale as a hostile, desolate sort of character in it’s own right. A feeling of detachment pervades every jagged rock face and every window-barred room on Shutter Island.
After crafting unabashed masterpieces like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull in his formative years, critics are more than willing to attempt to be the one to take Marty down a peg or two for even the most trivial of failings. With stellar performances and immaculate direction, Scorsese’s unflinching lens swings across topics including insanity, genocide, murder, infanticide and government conspiracy without ever falling into pastiche. Shutter Island would perhaps have benefited from shedding some of it’s two hour run time, but the terse exuberance of Scorsese’s unrestrained story telling fills this time with the sort of slickly enacted tension most directors can only dream of.