Shutter Island, the oft-delayed Martin Scorsese adaptation of the best-selling Denis Lehane book finally hits Irish cinema screens on March 12th. Usually these kind of release date changes result from studio unease at something that took place during production, be it unsatisfactory effects or the commonly cited “creative differences”. In this instance it would appear that these usual reasons were not at fault, for Scorsese brings us a vision that is so close to a Hitchcockian murder-mystery as to make you believe Alfred himself had a hand in its creation.
It’s 1954, the ghosts of World War II still linger and the red scare has people hunting for Communists in every neighbourhood. Teddy Daniels, a former soldier and current US Marshall is called to investigate the disappearance of a woman from Ashcliffe Hospital, a psychiatric institution for the criminally insane. This is no ordinary hospital, set as it is on an inhospitable island in the Boston harbour, entirely surrounded by ocean, razor sharp rocks and insurmountable cliffs (think Alcatraz but less homely). Accompanying Teddy on this investigation is his new partner Chuck Aule, another former soldier turned government agent. The two waste no time in determining that something sinister is afoot on Shutter Island and that the head psychiatrist and warden are hiding facts they’d rather weren’t uncovered. With Teddy experiencing visions that make both himself and others doubt his own sanity, the two agents find themselves trapped and in a desperate race to figure out the truth if they are ever to get back to the mainland.
Scorsese veteran Leonardo DiCaprio plays Teddy, a man tortured by his own past having witnessed the evils of Nazism at first hand in the liberation of Dachau and the death of his wife in a fire that destroyed their home. His performance is full of rich turmoil and emotion that is almost effortlessly displayed, this may lead some to doubt that he is trying at all such is the fervour with which he inhabits the character. His anxiety and nervous energy are transferred into the audience and as only true psychological movies do best manage to unsettle and provoke. Mark Ruffalo is the perfect foil for DiCaprio offering a solid, unassuming performance and a wall against which DiCaprio’s character can hurl questions and accusations. Ben Kingsley too is good as the doctor who may well be trying to help but obviously knows more than he’s letting on. Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson and Michelle Williams all do fine in their respective roles but the former two have very little to do and the latter is more of a plot device than a true character. The real star small part is Max von Sydow’s somewhat sinister Dr. Naehring, source of much of Teddy increasing paranoia and deliver of fantastic lines of bemused irony and contempt.
What Scorsese does best here is set a mood. The brooding orchestral overtones are ominous, haunting and ultimately unsettling, whilst the visuals, all greys, browns and blacks, add to the threatening feel. The island itself is a character, foreboding with its gothic architecture, electrified fencing and institutional presence. There’s a lingering dread here and no-one can escape it. Scorsese uses these elements and the performance of DiCaprio to paint a rich story of fear, isolation and despair. Sure you might think you know how it’s all going to end but even that reveal has a puzzling element and a certain lack of resolve. You will question what happened and the answers may well demand a second viewing. The puzzling nature and certain sidetracks may lose some of the audience before the end but those who stick with it are in for an emotional rollercoaster that will stick with them for hours after the final credits. One particular discussion/element that should have been left on the cutting room floor involves McCarthism and Communists. but that as small flaw in an otherwise fantastic film.
Ultimately, as with all Hitchcockian type thrillers, it’s not for everyone. Some people love this type of movie, some don’t. I’m biased as a massive fan of the genre. That said this is as fine a movie as Scorsese has made in recent times, and with that list including The Departed that’s no feint praise.