Shutter Island

Director    Martin Scorsese
Starring    Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, Ben Kingsley, Ted Levine, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley
Release    19 FEB (US) 12 MAR (UK)    Certificate 15
4 stars


11th March 2010

Shutter Island, the latest from director Martin Scorsese, is far from perfect, but it is an excellent showcase for a master filmmaker who is still working at the top of his game, despite being in the twilight of his career.

The film's shortcomings lie primarily with the script, which is a bit hackneyed and predictable, and contains a third act twist that requires more than a little suspension of disbelief. In lesser hands, this script would undoubtedly result in a complete disaster. Thankfully, Scorsese and his excellent cast, led by Leonardo DiCaprio, manage to transcend the problems inherent in the screenplay, and have delivered a moody, atmospheric thriller that is both engaging and unsettling.

DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall haunted by the deaths of his wife and children, and plagued by horrifying dreams. Along with his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), Teddy is dispatched to locate a prisoner who escaped from the insane asylum located on the remote Shutter Island. Once they arrive, the marshalls are introduced to Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley), the administrator of the facility, who employs some rather unorthodox psychological techniques on his patients.

[gallery]Teddy and his partner immediately set about investigating the disappearance of a young female inmate named Rachel Solando, but their efforts are constantly thwarted by the hospital staff and the inmates. Teddy and his partner soon uncover several dark secrets that Dr Cawley would rather stay hidden.  At the same time, Teddy's dreams grow worse, and he can feel himself descending into madness with every moment he remains on the island. Teddy eventually makes his way to the ominous lighthouse that dominates the island, where he learns that nothing is as it seems, and he may be hiding some secrets of his own.

Shutter Island owes a huge debt to Alfred Hitchcock, and it feels more in line with a film like Vertigo than with the thrillers of the modern era. It is largely an exercise in style over substance, often eschewing narrative cohesion in favour of creating an oppressive mood or presenting some amazing visuals.

Indeed, Shutter Island is simply one of the best looking films in recent memory, and the cinematography really deserves to be singled out for special recognition, because it is truly marvellous. The entire film exists in a grey haze, broken only by the vibrant and colourful dream sequences, all of which are hauntingly beautiful.

Adding to the oppressive atmosphere is an outstanding score, which sets the tone right from the bat. Scorsese has always been a master at incorporating music in his films, and Shutter Island is no exception. The music often dominates the film, without ever becoming overbearing or annoying. It is unsettling; a cacophony of dissonant chords and pounding tones, it serves to keep the viewer out of sorts. The film goes to great lengths to keep the audience on edge at all times, and the score is a driving factor in maintaining the disconcerting mood.

Additionally, the editing is quite often incongruous and abrupt, with several continuity errors throughout, but they feel totally intentional and purposeful. As with everything else in the movie, the editing serves to add to the feeling of madness. It is a small stroke of genius on Scorsese's part, and is a touch that really helps to elevate the film above the sort of shop-worn pulp nature of the script.

The cast is uniformly excellent, but they all take a back seat to DiCaprio. This is his movie, and he dominates every scene, delivering a performance that should dispel any lingering doubts about his talent. However, Mark Ruffalo does superlative work in a somewhat underwritten role. He gives it his all, despite being woefully underutilized, and it's a shame when he disappears for long stretches in the second act.

Nevertheless, Ruffalo more than proves his worth in a small role that won't get anywhere near the recognition it deserves. The rest of the cast is fine, with creepy supporting turns by Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow, but it is Ted Levine's Warden who absolutely steals the show, doing more in one scene than a lot of actors manage to do in entire movies.

Unfortunately, the movie drags a little, but it still manages to maintain the viewer's interest thanks to DiCaprio's bravura performance. Once the third act twist rears its ugly head, it threatens to squander all the goodwill that has been built up thus far. Some viewers may be turned off by it, but those who are able to roll with it will be rewarded with a fairly satisfying ending that leaves just the right amount of ambiguity.

While Shutter Island is far from Scorsese's best picture, and the film is somewhat hampered by a totally predictable and completely unbelievable third act twist, the style and direction combine to create a film that manages to fall just on the right side of greatness.  It is well worth the time of those who are willing and able to suitably suspend their sense of disbelief.

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