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.

Pulp fiction in its purest form.

* * * * (FOUR STARS)

In Martin Scorsese’s fast moving '50s set thriller, World War II vet US Marshall Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) is a tortured soul, one it seems, trapped to live a life of fear and dread. Haunted by nightmares and longing for deliverance, Teddy’s everyday perceptions are warped by memories of Nazi death camps and a murdered wife. Sent to Ashecliffe asylum for the violently insane on Shutter Island off the coast of Boston, with new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the disappearance of a patient, Teddy’s assignment gives him the screaming willies even before he hits the shore. Once inside its fortress like walls Teddy’s paranoia hits critical mass. With its epic scaled design, forbidding gates, and heavy stone work, the place doesn’t much look like a site of healing; more 'haunted house’ creepy. Even the hatchet -faced armed guards looked scared. Scanning the beautifully appointed room of Ashecliffe’s suave head, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) Teddy becomes fixated on some ancient etchings of psychiatric 'methods’. In the picture (seen in the kind of detailed close up most directors reserve for a climatic shock moment) its subject, a patient, wears a box-like apparatus over their skull. It looks like medieval torture and it foreshadows some shocking discoveries for Teddy; dungeon like cells, and beaten and bloodied patients and a 'disappearance’ that doesn’t seem to be a disappearance at all.

Based on Dennis Lehane’s 2003 novel, Scorsese has stayed true to the popular pulp fiction roots of an excellent book, with its twisty narrative and Twilight Zone pay-off. Shutter Island the movie, has, like The Departed, a commitment to plot – in Laeta Kalogridis adaptation the events, the business, characters and action, just keep coming – there's a suspected Nazi in Max von Sydow's specialist shrink, a sinister figure in Ted Levine's warden and two different women who claim to be the missing inmate, Rachel (Emily Mortimer/Patricia Clarkson). Still, long-term Scorsese watchers may sense a director who’s a little uneasy with the cranking mechanics that underpin the deliciously nasty atmosphere here. Perhaps that’s why the pace in the middle section gets a little jerky and the film's exposition seems heavy handed at times (and at others it’s breathlessly facile and elegant).

Spiked with uniformly excellent performances – DiCaprio is especially good in a treacherously difficult part – and shot in a lavish deliberately artificial style by Robert Richardson that recalls '50s studio pictures, Shutter Island is superb film craft. It’s exciting. But it also has depths and undercurrents that are fascinating. And I fear that it is in serious danger of being under-rated since its a film from a major filmmaker that seems so much apart of the entertainment machine and therefore 'less true’ a serious effort.

Before Cape Fear (1991) came out (another so-called 'commercial’ picture) Scorsese cautioned fans that as much as he loved genre, 'he could get bored" – meaning it was hard for him to suppress his own tendencies, and personal obsessions and subordinate them, so that he could, like an old fashioned pro, disappear 'behind’ the story. Well, he doesn’t quite manage a 'disappearing’ act here; Shutter Island, in terms of style and approach, is every bit a Scorsese picture. As in Goodfellas, you can feel Scorsese’s thrill in the possibilities of cinema; the excitement in a camera move, a cut, a music cue (and his technique is relentlessly relentless, though it must be said carefully calibrated to deliver precise effects). In the same way that his so-called 'personal’ films like Taxi Driver (1976) and Mean Streets (1973) paid tribute to films and filmmakers who he loved and adored – from Godard to Sam Fuller, Hammer horror and Fritz Lang, – Shutter Island seems, for Scorsese, an opportunity to explore the horror/thriller in the tradition of Hitchcock and Val Lewton (and others).

This is not slavish homage either (like a few critics have already claimed). Behind it is a precise, strategic technique that opens a way into the character – the whole movie, baroque and un-real, seems to have leapt out of the fevered psyche of Teddy - right onto the screen.

This is not simply a matter of re-tracing a Hitchcock camera move, or re-producing a visual atmosphere from say Bedlam (as others have claimed); it comes down, for Scorsese, to a deep understanding of the sensibility behind the virtuoso stylings. From Hitchcock Scorsese gets the hermetically sealed world; like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, we’re locked into Teddy’s obsessions and we have to follow them to the end. From Lewton Scorsese abandons reason; as in the superb B thrillers Lewton produced, like Curse of the Cat People, the key characters in Shutter Island are no longer in control of themselves, their drives and desires remain mysteriously out of reach (perhaps until the end).

Shutter Island positively abounds with classic horror movie stuff; rats, wild storms, hallucinations, dark corridors, insanity, mad doctors and crazy patients. I’m not sure Scorsese believes any of it is actually scary. It seems significant that the most awful, disgusting imagery in the film derives not from horror movies at all; but newsreels of the Holocaust. When it comes to depicting murder Scorsese doesn’t emphasise the gore, but the emotional horror.

What frightens Scorsese seems to be the idea that sometimes it’s not possible to drag ourselves away from 'unwanted’ thoughts and bad memories. As the movie unwinds it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish the swifts and flow of Teddy’s consciousness.

These days, pulp fiction is meant to be served with an alibi of irony. But there’s a sense that Scorsese is deeply taken by the heart-rending emotional core beneath the gee-wiz plot twists in Shutter Island. There’s a darkness here that is forbidding. It stops the movie from being a 'fun’ jolly ride. There’s little here that’s affirmed. Nerves remain rattled since it suggests that some monsters, at least for some unfortunate souls, are all too real.


Watch 'Shutter Island'

Sunday 25 April, 1:45am on SBS / NOTE: No catch-up at SBS On Demand

USA, 2010
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Language: English
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley

Movies Leaving SBS On Demand: April 2021
Don't miss your chance to watch these standout movies and documentaries leaving SBS On Demand throughout April.
TV Movie Guide: 5 - 11 April
When it comes to movies, there's something for everybody on SBS, SBS VICELAND, NITV and SBS On Demand. Find out what's screening where and when.
SBS World Movies Weekly Highlights: 5 - 11 April
Your guide to some of the stories from around the world, screening on Australia's own HD SBS World Movies channel (Digital channel 32).
April Fool's Season on SBS World Movies
A series of comedies in time for April Fool's Day (and beyond), airing weeknights at 9:30pm on SBS World Movies.
The right to love is worth fighting for in these powerful dramas
The triumph of love, on SBS World Movies, NITV and SBS On Demand.
The Hong Kong cinema collection has arrived at SBS On Demand
A collection of cinema classics featuring the dazzling visuals and genre-defining stories that have enraptured audiences worldwide. Now streaming at SBS On Demand.
SBS On Demand: Spotlight on Female Directors
Celebrate the work of female directors on International Women's Day (and every other day, too).

Related videos


2 hours 28 min
In Cinemas 18 February 2010,
Thu, 06/17/2010 - 11