Movies: Shutter Island * * * *
Published 12/03/2010 | 05:00
In the opening scenes of Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese evokes and surpasses the portentous grandeur of the great 1930s and 40s Warner Brothers crime dramas.
A small ferry emerges from the dense fog of Boston harbour and bobs towards the forbidding cliffs of a bleak and almost absurdly sinister-looking island that looms ever larger in Scorsese's lens. And as the crescendos of a pleasingly melodramatic score gather in the wings, Leonardo DiCaprio narrows his eyes and prepares himself for battle.
This mouthwatering opening is only the entrée to a film that positively bristles with cinematic references, which range from Hitchcock and Jacques Tourneur to the sort of obscure B movies that only a devoted cinephile such as Scorsese could love. In fact, Shutter Island, which is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, is as much about investigating the language of genre cinema as it is about its own rather slender story. Which may annoy some, but others will sit back, as I did, and enjoy the spectacle of a master filmmaker flexing his cinematic muscles.
DiCaprio is Teddy Daniels, a US marshal who's on his way to Shutter Island with his colleague, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a violent inmate from the island's notorious mental hospital.
As Teddy and Chuck arrive, an Atlantic storm is brewing that threatens to strand them. And when they reach the hospital, the welcome they get could best be described as lukewarm.
Their presence is resented by the hospital's supercilious chief psychiatrist Dr John Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and still more so by his sinister colleague Dr Jeremiah Naehring (Max von Sydow). And as the marshals attempt to find out how a patient called Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer) escaped from a locked cell, they are met with obfuscation and hostility at every turn. Rachel, it seems, was hospitalised for drowning her three children, but as Teddy tries to track her down, he begins to doubt that Cawley and co are telling him the truth.
In fact, as the storm bears down and his stay on the island extends into several days, he even begins to doubt his own sanity, as inmates in the hospital's nightmarish secure wing tell him stories about military drug experiments, in which patients have been used as guinea pigs. And with Teddy seemingly on the verge of cracking the case, we begin to doubt that he is the sanest chap on Shutter Island.
Scorsese's film contains a kind of plot within a plot, which makes discussing it tricky. And the ending is sufficiently ambivalent to require you to make your own mind up about what exactly is going on.
But in the end, Shutter Island is a film where style and atmosphere dominate more than the supposed themes of crime and punishment, memory and mental health. And while the dialogue creaks at times, words are often superfluous to Scorsese's bewildering array of homage-like set pieces.
At the centre of all hectic activity, DiCaprio has a tough job on his hands. For reasons I cannot go into without spoiling it, the demands of his character necessitate a very delicate balancing act, and it's one he pulls off with his usual unfussy aplomb. His progression as an actor in recent years has been extraordinary, this no doubt in part due to his collaborations (this is his fourth) with Scorsese. For whatever reason, he's now capable of a kind of discomforting screen intensity that can only be compared to Robert De Niro.
The rest of the cast plays it relatively straight. You can see Kingsley itching to go over the top, but he bravely resists the temptation; Ruffalo is as watchable as ever in a role that doesn't give him much to play with; Michelle Williams appears in flashbacks as Teddy's late wife; and Patricia Clarkson makes a wordy cameo as a refugee from the hospital. Von Sydow reads the mood best and becomes the Boris Karloff of the piece, his turn one of the many pleasures in a perplexing film that raises more questions than it ever finds time to answer.