Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Mean Streets, Casino, and The Departed come to mind when I think about some of the amazing films director Martin Scorsese has made in his 40+ year career. So it shouldn’t be taken lightly when I say that Shutter Island is one of his greatest achievements as a filmmaker. Is it perfect? No, upon one viewing it has many issues I could pick apart. Will it be regarded a classic? Most definitely. Like his 1999 film Bringing Out the Dead it will take many viewings to really appreciate Shutter Island for what it is.
The film is set in 1954 at the Ashecliffe Asylum for the criminally insane on Shutter Island, where U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) have arrived to investigate the disappearance of one of the most dangerous patients at the facility who seems to have vanished from her room without a trace. While conducting their investigation a violent storm hits and Teddy and Chuck are stranded on the island for the night. During their extended stay they begin to question the motives behind the two lead psychiatrists at Ashecliffe, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow). Are they doing medical experiments on the patients? Is everything they’re telling them about the case what it seems? And that’s the brilliance of Shutter Island. You can play the guessing game for most of the film but when you think you know the direction it’s going in it changes without you even realizing it.
From the opening scene with Teddy and Chuck on the ferry going to the island the atmosphere is very unsettling. It appears Scorsese is attempting to recreate the thrillers of the ’40s and ’50s such as Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) or Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) while also channeling Kubrick’s stark vision for The Shining (1980) which is evident in the cinematography used to present the asylum. You can question a shot that looks like it was in front of a green screen or you can question deliberate acting nuances but they are all there to pay homage to those classic films and the genre to which they belong. The music, supervised by Robbie Robertson of The Band (who Scorsese documented in the 1978 film The Last Waltz), also adds to the overall mood of the film with its powerful notes pounding off the screen and going right through my body.
This is the fourth time DiCaprio and Scorsese have worked together and it’s probably DiCaprio’s best role to date. Yes, his Boston accent is getting tiresome onscreen, but his presence is powerful here and he carries the film brilliantly. Ruffalo initially appears to be “off” in his role but by the end you’ll see how genius his acting really is. In smaller roles, Kingsley and Sydow don’t really get to show off their chops as much as they should but they still fit well with what their purpose is. The true stand-out though is Michelle Williams who plays Teddy’s wife Dolores. If Scorsese was looking at Hitchcock and Preminger for inspiration than Williams must have been looking at actresses Kim Novak and Gene Tierney. I don’t think we’ve ever seen this range in her acting abilities and she delivers both an intoxicating and graceful performance.
As I said, it might take a few viewings before one can fully appreciate what Scorsese has done with Shutter Island. If you give it a chance, and let it sink in, you should find it’s a Hollywood gem and be wowed with its outcome.
**** out of 5 stars