Like any great artist Martin Scorsese knows how to create a feeling. Whether it be New York’s suffocating angst in Taxi Driver or the constantly humming volatility in Goodfellas, the (finally) Oscar winning director is a master with the emotive paintbrush. Shutter Island, then, is Scorsese’s darkest film to date both aesthetically and in tone. But once you scratch away at the bleak canvas we’re left feeling rather empty.
Undoubtedly inspired by some of Scorsese’s favourite Noir, Shutter Island is at it’s most basic level a detective film centered around the disappearance of a ‘patient’ Rachael Solando from the seemingly inescapable mental institution on the remote Shutter Island.
Boston detective Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and new partner Chuck Aule arrive on the island and immediately surrender their firearms to obey protocol. They meet Dr. Crawley (Ben Kingsley) who insists the is at their disposal throughout the investigation. After a storm wrecks havoc on the island’s power and inevitable, the missing Solando turns up not once but twice and after a meeting with an old friend Daniels, crucially, starts to doubt his own existence.
As the plot twists and then turns Scorsese, master storyteller that he is, draws out our own doubts through Daniels’ behaviour and flashbacks (the only way we learn about Daniels’ traumatised past) to his time liberating a Nazi death-camp in WWII. This raises intriguing questions: why did Daniels want this case? Who is Laeddis? What happens in Ward C?
Nearly all of the accumulated loose ends become clearer after an unravelling that probably reveals a little too much over too many minutes. This is where the film dissipates slightly and becomes a little more Hollywood than you’d expect from a film maker of Scorsese’s heritage.
The performances in Shutter Island help capture the menace of the film. Leonardo DiCaprio is completely compelling as Daniels and portrays his fragile state of mind convincingly. The finest point coming when Daniels doubts his own partner. Shutter Island could mark DiCaprio’s finest performance with Scorsese at the helm.
The supporting cast, however, aren’t outshone by DiCaprio. Mark Ruffalo plays Chuck with a charming laddish-ness, one that makes the latter stages of the film tougher to digest but not entirely surprising. Ben Kingsley brings subtlety and composure to Dr. Crawley, a man whose professionalism is tested only when he almost loses his raison d’etre.
Stylistically Shutter Island wonderfully captures the insecurities of the protagonist in nightmarish noir. Expressionist angles, shady characters and snappy dialogue are all there but the film lacks some of Scorsese’s typical vivacity. As a result the rug isn’t ever completely pulled from underneath you: it’s fairly obvious where this is going.
Even the climax, a Sunset Boulevard-esque trip which differs from Dennis Lehane’s source novel, doesn’t have the effect it should. Instead when the end credits roll we’re left not really knowing how to feel.