Shutter Island. 2010. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, & Max Von Sydow. Paramount Pictures/Phoenix Pictures.
Rated 14A. 137 minutes.
Martin Scorsese will always be one of my favourite directors.
Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver; these were some of the movies I saw as a boy that first interested me in film, both wanting to write and direct them, as well as write about them, too. His style, going right back to Mean Streets, is a beautiful mix of different feels that make up what we now know as his definitive DNA on film. He’s got this amazing sense for the space of a frame, knowing almost exactly the right spot to capture each scene. Not just that, he’s a director that works impressively well with his actors. That’s why you see him working so much with Robert De Niro and now lately Leonardo DiCaprio. Even Joe Pesci becomes a better calibre actor just for being under the watching, thoughtful eye of Scorsese. For all his other amazing sensibilities, this is a director who can always manage to come up with the performances required to carry his stories. Better still, so many of his movies have several solid roles, such as here with DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, and the great Max Von Sydow all putting forth their acting strength alongside a couple smaller (though no less excellent) performances out of Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley, and Elias Koteas.
An exceptional cast, Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson, the original novel from which the screenplay is adapted by Dennis Lehane (The Drop, Mystic River)…
How can it get any better? Looks great on paper. Better via execution.
The elements of World War II and the atrocities which hang over Shutter Island‘s story is interesting. Not often does the American master narrative offer a look into the atrocities American troops inflicted back upon Nazi guards, as well as other Germans, even citizens. Specifically, the Dachau concentration camp guards in this story. On the 29th of April, 1945, American soldiers liberating Dachau during WWII supposedly executed a number of German POWs, guards at the camp who’d surrendered but were still killed, and so on. Even certain reports say inmates at the camps were given weapons, subsequently torturing then killing the guards in revenge. Scorsese brings us haunting imagery that our main character Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) witnessed during the liberation reprisals in ’45. This is where the psychological horror comes into play and takes us for a ride. Teddy’s trauma, both during the war and after, is in close parallel with the inmates (sorry, Dr. Cawley – patients). So it’s almost like this game of chicken that Daniels plays. He heads into the terrifying corridors of Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, as if daring the demons of the people inside to go up against his own. In the end, it’s the repression of the violence Teddy has witnessed, and done by his own hand, that comes back to wreak havoc over the present in his life. Once the past crawls back up from the recesses of his mind there is nothing left but darkness and despair.
A marriage of Scorsese and horror elements is extraordinary. It isn’t full on horror by any means. Although there’s a great deal of psychological horror and many of the tropes. Above all else, Scorsese crafts the story into something thrilling. Having a master like him makes the tropes just feel classic, entertaining. He uses his patented visual style to make things mysterious and edgy. We see a lot of those Scorsese pans (think Goodfellas and Casino with their panning/zooming within the frame). Mostly, his incredible framing and attention to detail creates the space of Shutter Island where he can really coax some properly engaging performances out of his actors.
Director of Photography Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight, U Turn, Casino) lends Scorsese a hand. His eye behind the camera is impeccable, both capturing amazing stuff in the tight close-ups while simultaneously grabbing these rich wide shots. Particularly, I love the way he works with the lighting, as there’s often these long shadows cast down over the actors, one light overhead. This works well to make the atmosphere gloomy. Everything interior feels as it should in a mental hospital of the era, one on an island at that, so the mood of the asylum is just eerie all over. Once Teddy goes into the really scary, dungeon-like cells of the asylum there is such an unnerving feel. Gets right into my head. Outside the locations lend themselves to an ominous tone: the rocks and the jagged cliffs like gargoyles on the edges of the island; lush green patches of grass against the dark waves and the blackened rocks of the shore; later, the cave in the rock with its again shadowy, gloomy shades. Honestly, Richardson is one of the greatest cinematographers of all time. Not because he’s won the awards, either. He just has a classic and gorgeous style. He’s shot some of my favourite films. Shutter Island may not be one my top list, but it’s an amazing movie. Richardson is a huge part of that, aiding Scorsese with cultivating a genuine mood of mystery, suspense, and psychological dread.
DiCaprio is fascinating here, as usual. Playing this character isn’t easy. When there are twists and turns to a character there can come with it the inherent possibility of an actor telegraphing those same twists and turns meant to stay secret, until experienced by the audience. What DiCaprio does is keep us right in the hot seat. We feel as confused as he does, more and more. Eventually, though, you’ll figure things out. Up to that point he does well with subverting our expectations. At one point you may imagine something coming, just on the verge of happening. However, DiCaprio and his ability to portray Teddy as a mentally fractured character is perfect for the role. Even if you guess where the story’s heading, even if you’ve sussed out the twists, there is still a lot to enjoy about his performance. Teddy becomes real and commands our empathy. His problems are devastating, and soon as we begin understanding there’s a bent reality at play, DiCaprio manages to keep us rooted to the deep emotional trauma of the character. Another classic role in his filmography, one that I won’t forget.
Everyone else does a solid job. Best of all is the horrific imagery that comes along with DiCaprio’s performance. There’s the earlier stuff involving the Dachau liberation reprisals, as a Nazi officer tried to kill himself before capture and failed miserably, bleeding profusely all over the floor, into the papers spread around the office where he sat. Later when Teddy starts having dreams, the images he experiences are terrible, shaking him awake and getting under the viewer’s skin. All this helps draw us into his character, right to the core of DiCaprio’s talent. Him and the mysterious imagery, as well as the outright horror, work together in allowing Shutter Island to feel genuinely scary at times.
An awesome mystery-thriller up there the best of the past six or seven years. Shutter Island feels classic and belongs amongst the ranks of similar films out of the 1960s and 1970s. Scorsese and DiCaprio are a spectacular team. The director is able to find Leo’s emotional centre in every part he plays. Likewise, I find DiCaprio seems to understand Scorsese and the angle at which he’s pushing in the respective films he crafts. All in all, this is a well put together production with many elements that gel to make everything darkly exciting, at times unsettling. And always, Scorsese keeps the pace rambling right up to the big reveals of the finale. Some say they guessed this first time very quickly. If so, that’s great. For me it took a second viewing just to piece everything together in a way that made the whole film better. I’m always willing to give a movie more than one shot. At first this may not appear as anything more than a decent little thriller. Think again. Watch it another time around and really pay attention to the clues, the secrets laid along the way.
There is much to behold.