It’s 1954, and on an isolated island off the coast of Boston lies the notorious Ashecliffe psychiatric hospital. Housing some of the century’s most dangerous criminals, it is normally completely off-limits to outsiders but, when one of the patients mysteriously vanishes, Detective Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) arrive to solve the disappearance. Coming up against a secretive and tight-lipped staff, headed by Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley), Teddy finds his investigation hampered at every turn. When he finally discovers what’s been happening in the heavily-guarded lighthouse, Teddy thinks he’s well on the way to cracking the case. But, as he begins having powerful dreams about his time spent liberating German concentration camps during WWII, and vivid hallucinations of his dead wife (Michelle Williams), can Teddy leave Shutter Island before it claims his sanity?
Even through he has been making movies for over 40 years, the release of a Martin Scorsese film is still an event. And although Shutter Island may not pack as powerful a punch as ground-breakers like Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980), it still marks Scorsese out as a master filmmaker. He has always excelled in bringing strong yet troubled characters to the screen, and it’s certainly the conflicted Teddy who drives the narrative. As portrayed by an intense DiCaprio, Teddy is intentionally difficult to pin down, bouncing between moments of clarity, rage and fear as he falls under the influence of Shutter Island. His violent flashbacks act as emotional markers in his journey to unlock hidden truths, overwhelming him as it does us. And Ruffalo is excellent as ever, giving a likeable, level-headed performance that both amplifies DiCaprio’s increasingly unhinged state and diverts from any narrative secrets that may be lurking.
For there are virtually no clues to be found along the way; this is an old-fashioned mystery movie and Scorsese is clearly enjoying the licence this gives him to tells the story, adapted from the novel by Dennis Lehane, in his own style. A palpable sense of unease permeates the visuals as well as the action; Shutter Island looks hyper-real, the actors popping against their backgrounds as as if we’re supposed to be aware of the green screen, to understand that all is not what it seems. Indeed, it’s reminiscent of Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991) in terms of its deliberately schlocky style; the institution itself is gloriously OTT, like something from a horror movie with its dank corridors and screams of severely disturbed patients piercing the night.
But if the tone seems heavy-handed at any point —perpetually lashing rain, Teddy’s disturbing visions, the overwhelming sound design—it’s all intentional, so just go along for the ride. And, when it finally reveals itself, the destination is well worth all of the tumult that has come before. Part gothic horror and part Hitchcockian nightmare, Shutter Island is bold, atmospheric and hugely entertaining. 4 stars
Stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams
Director Martin Scorsese
Screenplay Laeta Kalogridis, from the novel by Dennis Lehane
Running Time 2hrs 18mins
Opens March 12
An edited version of this review was originally published in the March/April issue of movieScope
Shutter Island – Arriving Clip
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Shutter Isalnd clip – Sense of Calm
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