Leonardo DiCaprio is in the prime of his film career. He really has come a long way from the pretty-boy playing simple love interests in bland blockbusters. And I think that the transition was mostly thanks to a certain Director named Martin Scorsese. Having similarly mentored the great Robert De Niro, creating some of his best work with him, Scorsese then took DiCaprio under his wing, and basically did the same thing. Gangs of New York may have seen him outmatched by powerhouse Daniel Day-Lewis, but The Aviator saw him come into his own, and marked the first movie where I forgot it was DiCaprio, and simply saw the character he was playing. The Departed, their third collaboration, was one of Scorsese’s most flawed works – for one inescapable reason, namely, it was a remake. And an unnecessary one at that! Still, DiCaprio was one of the best things about the movie (aside from Mark Wahlberg’s underrated cameo, possibly the only significant change from the original story), and he himself went on to do the solid trifecta of Blood Diamond, Body of Lies and Revolutionary Road. He recently starred in Christopher Nolan’s sleeper hit of the year, Inception, the best sci-fi blockbusters since The Matrix (ok, so Avatar may have had the visuals, but it had nothing else – like story, depth or decent acting). And now we get to revisit his fourth collaboration with Scorsese, released earlier this year to become the Director’s biggest box-office hit and DiCaprio’s biggest box-office opening: the psychological thriller, Shutter Island.
“You will never leave this island.”
It’s 1954 and US Marshall Teddy Daniels and his new partner Chuck Aule are dispatched to the Ashecliff Hospital for the criminally insane, located on the mysterious Shutter Island, in Boston. They are there to investigate the disappearance of an inmate, Rachel Solando, who allegedly vanished from a secure building, but whilst there Daniels begins to experience strange visions of his dead wife, who seems to give him clues as to the whereabouts of the missing girl, and to warn him of the real reasons why he is on the island. As his investigation leads him deeper and deeper into the island, he begins to uncover dark secrets, both about the facility and also about himself. Will he get to the bottom of the mystery? And will he ever get off the island?
Shutter Island is a quality thriller, a moody, atmospheric piece that will give you quite an oppressive ride for its duration. This may not quite be top-tier Scorsese here (for me, that’s The Last Temptation of Christ and The Aviator, as well as the likes of the more critically acclaimed Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino) but it is a compelling, top class production nonetheless. Really, it is a lesson in superior filmmaking, as Scorsese manages to eke out an ostensibly thin (but actually elaborate) story using all the tricks in his repertoire – strobe flickering of flames, shots played almost undetectably in reverse, striking imagery – creating an overwhelming sense of foreboding, of intangible menace, which pervades the entire piece. The closest film to this that he’s done before is probably his De Niro-starring Cape Fear remake, both in terms of mood and substance (although not quite in terms of depth – as Shutter Island has a whole other layer to it); and this clearly proves, once again, that he is adept at any genre that he tackles, generating a masterpiece irrespective of the material that he is working with.
DiCaprio is on top form here, after a series of movies (Revolutionary Road, Body of Lies and Blood Diamond) which – for me – whilst good, never seemed like they were really stretching his capabilities as an actor. Some might even feel like his turn here was a 50s-set prototype for Inception: there are a few interesting parallels you can draw with the latter movie, particularly in its subject matter of the blurred line between illusion and reality. And Shutter Island it really is his movie, the other bit-part actors merely adding to the authentic scenery – Mark Ruffalo (the latest Hulk) as his new partner, Ben Kingsley (Ghandi) and Max Von Sydow (Exorcist) as suitably dubious doctors in the establishment, and Michelle Williams (Dawson’s Creek) as his late wife, as well as Emily Mortimer (Harry Brown), Elias Koteas (Thin Red Line) and Watchmen’s own Rorschach, Jackie Earle Haley, all playing various inmates. They all do well to round out the inhabitants of Shutter Island – offering up simmering, perfectly acted character parts – but they merely enhance the whole experience, which is basically seen through DiCaprio’s character’s eyes. We feel for him in his plight, as his tortured, restless soul wanders the unsettling island looking for answers and not liking what he finds. It’s a dark, psychological study, an insight into the human psyche, and he carries it off beautifully right through to the gruelling final act, leaving you mesmerised, haunted and plagued by questions which – almost like the character himself – you don’t really want to know (or accept) the answer to. Acting-wise, this is definitely his movie.
“If I was to sink my teeth into your eye right now, would you be able to stop me before I blinded you?”
And whilst the story may have been largely based on the book of the same name by the author Dennis Lehane – who previously penned the novels that formed the quality mystery movies Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone – Scorsese has gone some way to making this his own work. Aside from ultimately twisting the ending, he has also gone to great lengths to craft such an opulent period setting; the asylum – and the island itself – simply coming to life. Although clearly shot using modern techniques, the movie has been noticeably classically stylised, and the visual effects have been used adeptly to create an indistinguishably ‘real’ environment. He uses some truly amazing imagery, not just with the hallucinations, but also with the nightmarish flashbacks: the disturbing apartment fire and the shocking concentration camp sequences standing out as particularly noteworthy.
Furthermore the attention to detail is insane, and on repeat viewings you will likely gain clearer insights from the signs that the movie is peppered with. The littlest of touches, the subtlest of nuances, they all become so clear on a second viewing. From the glass of water that disappears, to the changes of clothing between shots, it is all so well observed. And then there’s the dialogue and behaviour of the actual characters – watch it again and you will see a whole new layer. All of those niggling observations that you may have had, but just dismissed to the back of your head, become clear as day: like the early shot of Teddy’s partner having difficulty taking off his gun, or the later moment where Teddy verbally puts together some pieces of the puzzle, answering the mysterious question ‘what is 67?’ – Ben Kingsley displays just the right amount of suppressed and – at the time – inexplicable pride at that precise moment, as his doctor character hears what Teddy has to say. They are but fleeting moments, yet they really make the picture come into its own.
“You think I’m crazy, and if I say I’m not... well, that hardly helps does it? That’s the Kafkaesque genius of it. People tell the world you’re crazy and all your protests to the contrary just confirm what they’re saying. Once you’re declared insane then anything you do is called part of that insanity.”
And Scorsese is quite a genius for constructing so much out of what is, ostensibly, so damn little: the narrative largely consisting of the lead character creeping cautiously through barely lit corridors, exploring every mysterious shadow, the audience waiting on tenterhooks for whatever might be found. Yet one is faintly aware of some other layer below the surface, teeming with palpable menace, and it is here that Scorsese’s genius really shines through, offering up a deeper psychological drama beneath the overt missing persons story arc – one which does not surface until you are deep into the mystery. This really is much more than just a good thriller, its insightful look into the mind of madness (particularly with the asylum setting) reaching new heights and adding significantly to the depth and suspense.
Of course there is no way that he would have been able to so successfully crank up – and sustain – the almost unbearable tension without the aggressively threatening score. My favourite moments in the score are actually the quieter segments – the hauntingly beautiful, perfectly chosen piece that accompanies the apartment dream sequence standing out above the rest – but what many will remember this for is the speaker-busting main theme. Again, it harks back to the Director’s work on Cape Fear – a haunting, in-your-face soundtrack that creates a totally oppressive atmosphere, not just with heavy-handed orchestral moments, but also with striking rendition of the tumultuous storm that pervades the narrative. This truly is the kind of movie where you will feel exhausted by the end of it all.
The build-up is undeniably tense, the story utterly absorbing, the perfectly-played characters well-studied and engaging, and the pay-off elaborate and rewarding. This may never quite be regarded as a Scorsese ‘classic’ but this is still a masterpiece. And few films are as layered as this, (Fincher and Nolan have both pulled offer comparable feats) not just standing up well on a second viewing, but actually adding a whole new dimension to the proceedings. For both Scorsese and DiCaprio (now, indisputably, one of his generation’s greatest actors) Shutter Island is an undeniably solid entry in their filmography: an atmospheric, oppressive, moody mystery thriller; and also a dark, psychological study that hits all the right notes and will hopefully leave you feeling both richly rewarded and quietly contemplative. It comes strongly recommended by me.
“Which would be worse, to live as a monster or to die as a good man?”
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