In 1954, as Cold War tensions grow and modern psychiatric treatment starts to adhere, two U.S. Marshals arrive on a secluded island in Boston Harbour to investigate a multiple murderess who has vanished from her cell at a highly secure hospital for the criminally insane. Trapped on the island by a looming storm, one of the officers struggles to discover the island’s true purpose even as events from his past intertwine with the case.
(* * * 1/2 STARS): What do we want from Martin Scorsese? He is, by any means, a famous filmmaker now, a star of his recent Rolling Stones documentary (Shine a Light) and afforded a reverential cameo on the likes of television’s Entourage. In league with Leonardo DiCaprio, who has starred in his last four features to mirror Scorsese’s ties to Robert De Niro in the 1970s, he can get most anything made, and the idea that Hollywood would banish him, as appeared possible around the middle of the 1980s, is unthinkable now.
But is he profiting creatively from this? You could make a case that the best thing he has done in the last 10 years is No Direction Home, the epic, immersive Bob Dylan documentary he assembled in 2005. In terms of features he’s made a pair of historical epics (2002’s The Gangs of New York and 2004’s The Aviator), followed by a pair of wised up genre flicks (the crime antics of 2006’s The Departed and now a spooky thriller with Shutter Island); the spiritual concerns that underpinned 1997’s Kundun and 1999’s Bringing Out The Dead have fallen away, while 1995’s Casino, his last teaming with the two representatives of his creative personality – De Niro and Joe Pesci – remains a high point that’s receding into history.
Scorsese’s work, and those of key technical collaborators, is first-rate on Shutter Island, but the movie is an elaborate sham of sorts. The mystery plot, that begins with two U.S. Marshals, Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) arriving on a suitably fogbound island in Boston Harbour, moves inexorably towards a crucial reveal, and as deftly as Scorsese deploys his pieces the film is predicated on what the final twist is.
The director described The Departed as his nod to the likes of Michael Curtiz’s Angels With Dirty Faces, so that makes Shutter Island his take on the better horror movies of the 1940s, such as Val Lewton’s RKO productions (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie). The atmosphere is tangible: Teddy and Chuck have barely arrived and they’re being eyeballed by a demented woman in shackles. Scorsese knows to cast great faces, with the unreadable John Carroll Lynch (Zodiac) as the deputy warden, while Elias Koteas looms as a psychopath.
Working from a Dennis Lehane novel adapted by Laeta Kalogridis, Scorsese has made a mystery where the terms of reference keep slipping away. The investigators are searching for Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), but the island’s staff, directed by Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley), is hardly a help; a witness is absent, whole buildings made off limits. Teddy’s control is further threatened by his memories of his own wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), whose death is connected to another inmate.
Scorsese has great fun with all this plotting, delighting in the jumps between reality and illusion that are signaled by artful disorientation. Yet it would be for nothing if he hadn’t strengthened an underlying theme in the source material. The narrative repeatedly touches on Teddy’s service in World War II, specifically his presence at the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, where the dead are seen in nightmarish frozen piles that are Hieronymus Bosch-like.
The idea slowly accretes that Teddy’s presence amidst one of the great mass crimes of the century is too much for him to bear, especially as the island may house the next generation of experiments that will be used for the rapidly accelerating Cold War. 'God gave us violence to wage in his honour," the warden (Ted Levine) tells Teddy, and the argument about violent psychology is reflected in the debate between the psychiatric staff about the use of therapy and chemicals versus those who invasive methods such as a lobotomy.
Still, this balance starts to slip away. There’s one too many pointed conversations, one too many snatched revelations. DiCaprio’s descent into confusion is too methodical, as if he’s working off a chart, so he can’t quite suspend the audience’s disbelief with his own emotional undercurrents.
But two crucial inclusions remind you that Scorsese marks genre films as clearly as they mark him. The first is a final, brief conversation, between DiCaprio and Ruffalo, which adds emotional resonance to the plot twist, while the second is the final song that plays over the closing credits. It’s an interpolation of two tracks, a vintage Dinah Washington vocal and a contemporary classical piece by Max Richter, by music supervisor Robbie Robertson, which gives Shutter Island a spectral incandescence the preceding scenes can never quite maintain.
Between them they’re enough to suggest that this is more than a master doing minor work. But only just.