By Marty Mulrooney
Director Martin Scorsese’s latest film sees him team up once more with actor Leonardo DiCaprio, this time in a psychological thriller more akin to Cape Fear than Goodfellas. I must admit, I was pretty worried that Shutter Island would ultimately present us with bog standard horror fare, but boy was I wrong. This is one hell of a film: it claws its way into your head and continues to nibble at the edges constantly throughout.
From the opening shot of a ferry emerging out of mist covered waters, Scorsese immediately conveys a sense of dread not through predictable clichés but through the very fabric of the narrative. We are introduced to U.S Marshal Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) as he vomits over a stained toilet bowl, before splashing his face with cold water and telling himself to get a grip. With his stubble-flecked chin and haunted eyes, the man presented to us here is a far cry from the pretty boy image we became accustomed to aboard the Titanic all those years ago.
Standing beside his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) on deck as they approach Shutter Island, Teddy certainly looks the part with his loud tie, long trench coat and billowing cigarette, fedora slanted upon his head. There is something beautifully classy and elegant about the clothing styles from the period in question (the 1950’s) that has been absolutely nailed here.
Shutter Island is a hospital for the criminally insane, so most of the other characters are dressed in some kind of uniform. Therefore, DiCaprio and Ruffalo stand out like sore thumbs in their pulpy detective garb, making it feel all the more impactful when they are told to surrender their firearms at the main gate.
Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley) is in charge from this point onward, welcoming the men to his facility. An undoubtedly strong actor, he plays his role with plenty of restraint to marvellous effect. This is where the real story begins: a patient has gone missing and the Marshals are there to find out where she has disappeared. But everyone seems to be hiding something on Shutter Island, from Dr. Cawley to Teddy himself. Nothing is as it seems from the outset, causing the viewer to constantly second guess the villains and the heroes at every turn. Things only get stranger.
I cannot discuss the plot any further than this sadly. I am too afraid of ruining the impact for AMO’s readers that I myself felt in the cinema as a first time viewer. Rest assured, this is a master class in tension. In particular, Emily Mortimer as missing patient Rachel Solando truly resonates, instilling an almost primal level of fear in the viewer with every appearance. The plot is like a twisting bag of snakes. Nothing is as it seems.
Perhaps most importantly, Shutter Island never feels cheap. This is not horror evoked through gore or jump scares, oh no, but via thoroughly well deserved chills and pure terror the likes of which can only be attained by building a genuine connection between the audience and the rapidly unfolding nightmare on screen.
There is so much to recommend here on a purely visceral level. The island itself is gorgeous, rain soaked woodlands giving way to darkened patient wards and wave battered cliffs. Hallucinogenic sequences merge powerfully against the stark reality of a drained colour pallet: flashbacks of war are hauntingly beautiful despite their grimness. The emotional chords aimed for are struck with success. Some scenes just won’t get out of my head. I was truly affected.
The cinematography is stunning, with every shot feeling planned and weighted. To make such hellish locals feel hypnotically beautiful is certainly a feat worthy of commendation. Elsewhere, the use of pre-composed modern classical music serves to further the taut atmosphere to almost unbearable levels. Together, the combination of the two is a knockout.
But the real reason to see Shutter Island is undoubtedly DiCaprio. I truly believe he is one of the finest actors of this current generation, having matured with age in such a way that it is a delight to watch him continually unfurl himself on screen. The twists and turns of this tale may cause a falter in momentum towards the end, but it is DiCaprio’s believable performance that always manages to spur the narrative onward. You can really buy into his desperation: he sells the role 100%.
This is a surprisingly haunting tale that is also a classy, sophisticated and satisfying adult thriller, with just enough ambiguity to allow food for thought during the drive home. Besides, surely any film that makes a lighthouse scary is worth a watch? A unique experience in psychological horror, with only a few small narrative missteps towards the end, Shutter Island is definitely worth checking out at your local cinema.
9 OUT OF 10