By Samantha Schles
Martin Scorsese is becoming a genre director, and Shutter Island is no exception. The movie, based on Dennis Lehane’s novel, operates as a tribute to Hitchock’s film noir of the 1950s and early 1960s.
Set in 1954, U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are dispatched to Shutter Island’s Ashecliffe Mental Hospital. They investigate the disappearance of the “highly dangerous” Rachel Solando, committed for drowning her three children. With nasty headaches, the ever-present army of guards and psychologists and a disturbing personal past, DiCaprio is off on a twisted journey to find Shutter Island’s dangerous secret. Scorsese works with a limited story that has been used and reused in Hollywood. It’s taken up a notch with a look at the post-WWII mentality of psychotropic drugs and violence.
But the film is drenched in 1950s-esque everything, which is ultimately why Shutter Island isn’t amazing. Scorsese almost smothers his audience with his love of classic film noir and thrillers. The use of water and fire mimic the effect of heights in Vertigo (Teddy Daniels would have been perfect for Jimmy Stewart). But Ruffalo and DiCaprio’s steely gazes and furrowed brows, with quips like “It’s a mental hospital…for the criminally insane,” detract from the visual poetry of the story.
DiCaprio’s tragic memories/hallucinations are the highlight of the film, as is the scene in which he chases ghosts through the most mysterious of places on Shutter Island. The cinematography and set design alone are worth the ticket price. DiCaprio is haunted by memories of his wife—memories that are surreally reproduced in heightened greens and reds. With disturbing flashbacks of the liberation of Dachau (a concentration camp in WWII), one hell of a back-story is created. We end up caring less about the mystery of the hospital and just want to watch DiCaprio get lost in his thoughts.
Scorsese, as one of the world’s best contemporary directors, is held up to higher standards of filmmaking. Shutter Island is not his best film—far from it. But as a thriller, it’s one of the better ones from the last 10 years. Just don’t go expecting the next Taxi Driver.