Shutter Island (2010) / Thriller-Mystery

MPAA Rated: R for violence, language and some nudity
Running Time: 138 min.

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch, Elias Koteas
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Laeta Kalogridis (based on the novel by Dennis Lehane)
Review published May 29, 2010

The collaborations between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed, The Aviator, Gangs of New York) haven't yet produced the kinds of masterworks Scorsese had made with his previous favorite actor, Robert De Niro, but they're still exceedingly intelligent and robust films that stay true to their form.  Scorsese works with the adaptation by Laeta Kalogridis (Pathfinder, Night Watch) of the novel by Dennis Lehane, infusing a Hitchcockian directorial style (Hitchcock-philes will spend time observing the many the visual cues, especially to Vertigo), while the gothic horror themes of a hellish insane asylum keeps the setting appropriately ominous. 

Unlike, say, M. Night Shyamalan, who also fashions himself as a modern day Master of Suspense, Scorsese knows that there's many ways to reel out a suspense yarn, but sometimes an incredible story needs to be taken out the realm of realism to work.  When, from the very first scene, you see the actors performing in front of an obviously phony background, you know Scorsese isn't trying to achieve realism rather than create a film employing the same techniques as those classics made in the 1950s, which is also, not so coincidentally, the time in which the film is set.

The story starts with federal marshal Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck (Ruffalo, The Brothers Bloom) taking a ferry out from Boston to a mysterious and treacherous island which is inhabited by the most criminally insane patients in the country.  Their mission is to uncover the whereabouts of a missing patient, Rachel Solando (Mortimer, The Pink Panther 2), who has disappeared without a trace, bafflingly, as there isn't a ready means to escape or hide on the water-bound island.  The institution's head is Dr. Cawley (Kingsley, The Love Guru), a psychologist who believes in treating the patients with utmost care when possible -- at least he seems so on the surface.  As Teddy and Chuck dig deeper, they discover that not everything is as it appears in the institution, and start coming to the conclusion that there is a plot afoot that may involve them never getting out again.

A twisty psychological thriller, but one that doesn't hinge on its twists to satisfy, Scorsese knows well enough that seasoned moviegoers will figure out the gist of the big reveal long before it occurs.  He doesn't quite give up the goods, but, like Hitchcock did in Vertigo, he bolsters the dramatic tension by being more about the psychological manifestations which occur to the detective at the heart of the story than it is about the discovery of the mystery behind the island itself.  And it's more of a case study in paranoia than in an exercise in suspense, such that, even if you're able to discern where the plot is headed, you still appreciate the way the plot's twists are presented.

A lesser director would have likely overplayed the hand dealt.  It's a testament to Scorsese's mastery as a director that he keeps the rather complex storyline contained to just that which is needed by the story itself, while still maintaining a sense of artistry and style to how it unravels.  Throughout, Teddy is haunted by visions of his presumably deceased wife (Williams, The Hottest State) visiting him, cautioning him, and the traumatic past as a soldier witnessing first hand the atrocities of a Nazi concentration camp.  All of this has allusions to the present, and it also creates side plots involving a mostly unseen nemesis that may have been responsible for destroying Teddy's idyllic past.  Fears about the rise of deadly weapons of mass destruction and technological advances have the patients questioning whether it's better to be inside where it's safe and they're cared for rather than the mad world it is on the outside.

With another strong performance by DiCaprio at the heart of the film, and a terrific supporting cast, Shutter Island is an old-fashioned suspense yarn, intentionally contemporary in its style to the time it's set, that knows how to keep an audience riveted to its story without the need for constant jump-scares or prurient gore (though both are utilized).  And yet, while the story is absorbing, it isn't as intense as you'd think given the subject matter.  At the core of the narrative, the focus isn't on scaring the audience so much as seeing its protagonist make some important realizations regarding the way the place works, as well as about himself, and the result is fascinating yet felt from a distance.  And like any good thriller, the emphasis lies more in creating suspense more than it does in making sense.

Shutter Island further solidifies Martin Scorsese both as a solid genre director and as someone whose isn't above cribbing artistic and conceptual flourishes, even of his own work.  This is a film made by someone who loves watching movies as much as he loves making them.  Though he may continue to try, it's difficult to create a masterpiece when this generation of filmmakers have studied and applied your craft to their own work -- how can you find a unique voice when so many others have assimilated it?  But, he doesn't seem to care, as he's a consummate professional, applying his masterful techniques to the story at hand.  In a genre where it's difficult to find an angle not already done to death, Scorsese doesn't innovate or surprise, but does manage to keep it alive due to craftsmanship and a keen understanding of the genre's history, weaving in elements of old school filmmaking with a more modern approach.  The result is a movie that is not only effective as its own story, but as a film literate work, knowing that, in mysteries, the key to winning isn't always how well you keep your hand from being known, but by knowing what cards to play and when.

Qwipster's rating:

©2010 Vince Leo