By now, it should come as no surprise that the combination of Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio delivers. Their previous collaborations (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, and The Departed) have all garnered critical acclaim and awards. While Shutter Island is most likely not going to make a grab for the Oscars next year, it instead represents a time in the life of one of the most prolific filmmakers to relax and stop trying to impress, as he has by now surely proved himself to everyone he possibly could. By that, I certainly don’t mean that this film lacks effort, but merely that it is fairly simple. It is well directed (as always), well acted, and a sackful of good, clean, gothic fun.
The film is about a U.S. Marshal Teddy Lewis (DiCaprio), and his partner (more than competently portrayed by Mark Ruffalo) investigating the mysterious disappearance of a patient of a high-security hospital for the criminally insane. While on the first pass the facility is normal, and even very humanitarian, it soon takes on a shroud of extreme menace. What gives it away? Oh, the usual thing – strange comments of staff and patients, a potentially ex-Nazi doctor, a storm, the movie’s trailer… As the investigation thickens, Teddy begins to realize he may have difficulty leaving the island regardless of what he uncovers.
Probably the greatest treats in the film were the sections that allowed some room for Scorsese’s inventiveness to live to its fullest – I’m speaking here particularly about the dream sequences, which were absolutely superb. Times like these, audiences truly thank whatever higher power they believe in for digital cinematography and CGI, when these tools are placed in the hands of geniuses. The dream scenes, along with the wonderfully surreal and simultaneously terrible flashbacks create the core of this film’s uniqueness. They also add to the already omnipresent sense of doom, created by the gothic setting, and of course, a storm.
Things are also well on the acting front – the cast is led by Leonardo DiCaprio, who over the past decade emerged as a more than capable actor under support of Scorsese. His portrayal of the tortured Marshal is almost beyond reproach, and as the leading man he delivers perfectly on his number one duty – holding the audience’s attention, keeping them engaged in his character. In the wings, we have Mark Ruffalo, who does his job well, though the way the character was written the job is really not much. Sir Ben Kingsley plays the head doctor with ease, but does not exceed expectations. The ultimate feat in this role is being a very friendly, but scary villain, which is obviously not an easy task.
If I have a point of contention with the film, it is the screenplay, and the twist-ending, which anyone knowledgeable in the genre anticipates and dreads. We do want our protagonists to win and be in the right, and a movie that spends two hours getting us to identify with the character is not going to win favor by showing us that all we had believed was wrong, surprising though it may be to some. All the same, perhaps this is a standard because that is the way the story must end to pacify some ancient god of archetypes. If this is the case, so be it – as a fairly straightforward psychological thriller, it is easily on the top of the genre, thanks to Scorsese’s undeniable finesse.