Martin Scorsese makes movies as if his life depends on it, never skimping on ferocity and feeling. From Mean Streets to The Departed, Scorsese’s crime films turn the genre on its empty head, shaking out the clichés to uncover the violence of the mind. His latest, Shutter Island, sizzles with so much nerve-frying suspense that it’s hot to the touch. The time is 1954. The place is Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, located off Boston Harbor on a remote island that’s locked as tight as Alcatraz. A Category 5 hurricane is brewing as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), ferry in to capture Rachel Solando, a killer of her own children who’s escaped from her cell. The Gothic terror kicks in when the storm literally breaks down walls and the patients run amok, along with their darkest secrets. See it twice and double your fun. Just don’t expect your head to stop spinning.
Cinema is in Scorsese’s DNA, so movie lovers can play a game finding references that extend through film noir (Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past), horror (Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim), war trauma (Karl Malden’s Time Limit), phantasmagoria (Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor), Hollywood’s version of asylum life (Anatole Litvak’s Snake Pit) and the terrifying real thing in Frederick Wiseman’s landmark documentary Titicut Follies.
You don’t need to know any of these films to appreciate Shutter Island, since Scorsese reshapes them into something uniquely his own. But those references tip you off that the director is hunting bigger game than thrills. Set in a time of lobotomy surgery, radical drug experiments, mind-control conspiracies, Cold War paranoia and A-bomb dread, the film demands that you stay alert if you want to stay ahead of the bombshell climax. No hints, figure it out yourself.
DiCaprio, in his most haunting and emotionally complex performance yet, is the vessel Scorsese uses to lead us through the film’s labyrinth. Adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novel by Laeta Kalogridis (Pathfinder), the twisty – maybe too twisty – script lets us know Teddy is a hard-drinking World War II vet with a quick fist. And flashbacks to his strained marriage to Dolores (Michelle Williams) show equal trauma at home. But mostly we see Teddy during his four days on Shutter Island. Seasick on the ferry in, Teddy tries to get to know his new partner (Ruffalo is reliably superb). The byplay between these two gifted actors rewards careful attention.
On the island, the marshals meet Ashecliffe’s head man, Dr. Cawley, played by Ben Kingsley with just the right blend of wry wit and menace. To Cawley, everyone is a potential patient. His eyes seem to be everywhere. The great Max Von Sydow has the role of Dr. Naehring, who brings with him the aura of Nazi threat. It doesn’t take long for Teddy to figure nothing is what it seems.
It takes a hurricane to knock down barriers. Teddy’s meeting with the patient Noyce (the excellent Jackie Earle Haley) shakes him, as do his two encounters with the murderous Rachel, played by two exceptional actresses, Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson. DiCaprio’s scene in a cave with the terrific Clarkson is one of the film’s dramatic highlights. It puts the audience in Teddy’s position, caught between reality and hallucination.
With the help of cinematographer Robert Richardson, production designer Dante Ferretti, music supervisor Robbie Robertson and editing whiz Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese holds us in a vise-like grip. The climactic scene won’t be the only thing that leaves you shattered. Scorsese makes dark magic in this mesmerizing mind-bender. No one who lives and breathes movies would dream of missing it.