When trailers for Shutter Island landed this past summer, hints that Martin Scorsese would try his hand at a story with supernatural elements sent many a fanboy’s heart aflutter. Those walking into Shutter Island expecting a straightforward horror movie will leave disappointed. Those expecting to see a rich, character driven film that masterfully blends in iconic horror touches alongside nods to film noir and the culture of paranoia that swept through the 1950’s will be richly rewarded by a film that delivers the goods.
Federal marshal Teddy Daniels leaves for Shutter Island, home of an institute for the criminally insane, to investigate the disappearance of a dangerous female inmate. Alongside his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), Daniels finds his investigation stonewalled by the heads of the asylum Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sydow). As a hurricane strands the marshals on the island and knocks out communication with the mainland, events take a turn for the sinister. The missing patient case seems inconsequential as questions surrounding the facility pile up. A deeper conspiracy involving unauthorized patient experimentation begins to unfold, involving Nazi schemes and HUAC. Daniels paranoia runs deeper as he explores the island, and it’s revealed he didn’t come to the island accidentally: He’s searching for the inmate responsible for starting the fire that murdered his beloved wife Dolores (Michelle Williams).
Scorsese brings out “A” game in his cast. While the partnership may not reach the lofty heights of his work with DeNiro, there’s no denying his films bring out the best in Dicaprio. Kingsley brilliantly job straddles the line between concerned doctor and a man hiding a more sinister agenda. After cringing through Anthony Hopkins scene chewing turn in The Wolfman, Kingsley's understated performance was a breath of fresh air. Elias Koteas and Jackie Earle Haley have brief supporting roles as inmates, but make fantastic use of limited screen time. Koteas appears as the disfigured firebug Dicaprio is chasing down and is chilling as a just barely in control lunatic. Haley plays a madman locked up in the restricted ward who may have key information regarding the marshal’s mission, or he may just be in need of electroshock therapy. Michelle Williams steals every scene she appears in as Ted’s dead wife. She only appears in flashback and dream form, and she’s simply achingly beautiful and vulnerable.
While not a horror movie per se, Scorsese uses genre tropes and imagery to create a haunting, suspense filled atmosphere. From the early moments of the film when the island appears out of a heavy fog, with waves futilely crashing up against the barren cliffs, one gets the sense this is a foreboding and dangerous location. Scorsese also employs nightmarish flashbacks as Daniels psyche begins to deteriorate. He’s haunted by memories of liberating Dachau in WWII. We see visions of bodies piled outside of dumpsters, their emaciated forms frozen stiff by cold. While it may not compare with the money shot in Goodfellas, the tracing scene where enraged GI’s unload their rifles on the surrendered German guards is shocking in its brutality. Set in the mid-50’s, the film evokes the paranoia prevalent in films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Scorsese makes excellent use of the abandoned facilities where he filmed. At times the film evokes memories of the claustrophobic Danvers State Mental Institute used in Session 9. At other times, Hammer Horror hounds will nod their heads in appreciation of the gothic and gloomy environments (The cliff paths and lighthouse reminded me he outdoor locales of Wicker Man). In the film’s best visual sequence Dicaprio makes his way down the pitch black confines of a sealed off lunatic ward with only minimal illumination provided by a flickering matchstick. The walls seem to collapse in around him as the wails of the damned cry out and press up against him in the darkness. Lightning bathes statues and structures in a sinister light. The storm snaps massive branches off trees and strews them around an old cemetery like discarded limbs.
Michelle Williams provides some of the most haunting images in the film. The shot of DiCaprio embracing her in a dream while blood pours from her stomach, staining her dress just before she dissolves to ash is both beautiful and terrifying.
It’s difficult to talk about Shutter Island without revealing too much of the third acts “twist”. My own opinion is Scorsese never seeks to deceive the audience with sleight of hand parlor tricks and red herrings. Instead, Scorsese seems to be guiding his audience towards the inevitable conclusion, allowing most people to catch it about midway through the film. The film is littered with clues towards the final reveal. surrounds Scorsese employs uncomfortable visual angles and conflicting edits to imply the mental deterioration and increasing paranoia of DiCaprios agent (Brian Collins of Horror Movie a Day does a better job of describing these techniques in his review of the film). When the events of what truly led Daniels to the island are laid out, the film shifts its tone from that of mystery and suspense to that of a psychological examination of a person’s breaking point before madness takes hold.
I have no problem admitting I have a boner for Martin Scorsese movies. As far as I’m concerned, we should just build a room for him in the Smithsonian where he can live and tourists can gape at a living treasure. It’s great to see him turn his eye toward a horror film for grownups-that’s a section of the genre sorely lacking as of late. Shutter Island is the type of film that will benefit from multiple viewings just to watch the subtle ways the story reveals itself.