In 1950’s Boston, two U.S. Federal Marshals (Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo) get trapped on an island that is home to a hospital for the criminally insane during a hurricane while investigating the disappearance of a psychotic patient (Emily Mortimer) in Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited screen adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s best-selling novel.
How long was the wait? Well, it was long enough for me to read Lehane’s book between the original and actual release dates. And was it worth it? Oh, you betcha! And let’s get another thing straight, boss. Shutter Island is a “lesser” Scorsese…as in Full Metal Jacket is a “lesser” Kubrick. It also means this is the Scorsese I fell in love with as a kid. Yup, my first exposure to the greatest living American director was Cape Fear, another “lesser” film. I remember seeing it when I was twelve with my dad and brother. We were the only ones in the theater spare for an old man who cowered in his seat the whole time. It was one tense, wild and unforgettable experience and I remember leaving the theater thinking, “That was the Best Movie EVER.” It wasn’t — not even close, but I’ve uttered that after getting Scorsese-ized time and time again. Because here’s the thing about ol’ Marty…the guy is always going “whole hog” no matter what the material. Shutter Island, though essentially a B-level flick, is an A-list production and one hell of a creep-out.
The whole Scorsese gang is on board here: Editor-in-Chief Thelma Schoonmaker (seriously, is there a better editor than Thelma?), production designer extraordinaire Dante Ferretti, macho-man muse DiCaprio (acting here as if his life depended on it) as well as cinematographer Robert Richardson (who creates an effective mid-era Hitchcock look). There’s also a mix-and-match un-original music score that eerily brings to mind Bernard Herrmann as much as it does John Williams’ theme to Jaws…not to mention the haunting use of Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” in the “dream sequences” featuring “the wife” that will break your heart. Scorsese, who has always been known for his seamless integration of pop music in his films, goes Malick on us here, and it will blow you away. The sound design is also among the best I have ever heard…every leaf blowing in the wind, every creak of the trees and of doors and stairwells, every rain drop in a relentless storm, every little ash falling…it’s all created so vividly as to leave you breathless.
Having read the novel and being a life-long Scorsese fan I knew from the get-go what Marty would use as a closing shot. I knew every little twist, every turn, and yet this was so masterfully crafted and Schoonmaker so effortlessly edited Scorsese’s pieces of the puzzle, that I was completely enthralled and on the edge of my seat the entire time. This was so well done, and I became so lost in the artistry of it, that I completely forgot I knew exactly how it was going to end. That being said, like the novel, the film suffers as it heads towards its denouement and becomes weighed-down by its own generic revelations. Screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis wisely tunes into what should be focused on and what parts of the back-story to leave out, but the film still can’t overcome Lehane’s quasi-self-parodying central narrative conceit. Scorsese also abuses his power in the damnably transfixing flashback scenes to craft a mini-movie about the Allied raid on Dachau: dead bodies frozen in heaps, Holocaust survivors gripping barbed wire, Nazi files raining down on blood-smeared floors…it’s all so dreadfully beautiful…the stuff of nightmares, and Scorsese revels in it.
And here I am, barely having touched on the performances. Make no mistake, now serving a fourth term with Marty, Leonardo DiCaprio is the actor he is today because of Scorsese, and his performance is a visceral powder-keg of pent-up emotion. These two, like the characters in the film, are “Men of Violence”, and the results are blood-splattered Rorschach tests for the audience’s mind. The supporting cast is A-list all the way with Ben Kingsley, Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson and numerous others playing the game perfectly. Then there’s the near-Lynchian female duo of Michelle Williams (brilliant as the woman Leo’s character can’t let go, and hers is an even more astounding performance considering the loss she suffered in real life with the passing of her daughter’s father Heath Ledger) and Emily Mortimer (seethingly demure and cracked like an ancient Greek statue as Leo’s Medea). There are moments with these two that will jolt you like cold fingers on the back of your neck.
Despite its flaws, Shutter Island is so well crafted, so tightly wound by Scorsese, and features such great performances, that one can’t help but be moved. It contains spellbinding moments so perfectly pitched that I found myself wondering…is this the greatest A-list Hollywood-funded mainstream horror film since Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining? Well…it might be wishful thinking, boss…but I think it’s better for my film-loving soul to imagine Scorsese’s latest to be a great film than to fear it being his worst. As is always the case with Marty, the devil is in the details and the layered meanings — how something so predictably generic could be molded into art. And if an audience can’t appreciate the painstaking nature of such a craftsman, then surely we are the ones who are criminally insane.
Written by David H. Schleicher
Below, Max Richter’s composition “On the Nature of Daylight” is an evocative and stirring piece of work in its own right, and used in conjunction with the Michelle Williams’ scenes in Shutter Island…there are no words.