Scorsese's 'Island' a Gory, Glossy Thriller
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
In many ways, "Shutter Island" may be the film that speaks most directly from director Martin Scorsese's experiences as a youth, growing up surrounded by cinema and steeped in the Catholic Church. On Saturdays, he was in the movie house, hoping for excitement; on Sundays, he was in Mass, praying for forgiveness. Adapted from Dennis Lehane's novel, "Shutter Island" combines the lunging thrills of the B-movie matinee with a spiritual quest for forgiveness and peace. It's not the smoothest or most carefully crafted movie, but it's undeniably gorgeous, and shot through with flashes of brilliance like lightning in the dark.
In 1954, federal marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) comes to Ashecliffe Hospital, a mental institution for the violently insane perched on the ragged rocks of Shutter Island in Boston Harbor, alongside new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the disappearance of prisoner Rachel Solando. Her door was locked from the outside; the building was locked and patrolled. But she's gone. And Teddy, driven in part by his own past, is leading the effort to find her, even as the hospital's silken and sensitive head psychiatrist Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) helps and hinders the investigation. The island has secrets. So does Teddy.
Now that Scorsese is an elder statesman of cinema, wearing the title of "America's greatest living director" like a well-tailored but nonetheless confining jacket, it's easy to forget that in many ways he was the prototype for Tarantino: a movie-mad punk kid with an ear for the perfect soundtrack choice and a taste for blood. "Shutter Island" reminds us of that, skipping between movie moments stolen from other films with glee and cuts that flicker with the speed of a straight razor across a throat. Hitchcock's "Vertigo" and "Spellbound" are here, and so are the dark-dripping sensual suspense films of Val Lewton. Scenes and shots are lifted out of everything from "King Kong" to "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." The wind that howls across the island could be from King Lear; the bars and cells of the hospital's violent ward have the dank chill of Poe.
Scorsese's technical team is, as ever, top-notch. Director of photography Robert Richardson turns shadows into velvet even as he crafts bright Technicolor flashbacks of Teddy's past marriage that feel like Douglas Sirk nightmares and moments from Teddy's war service with the gray grip of horror. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker cuts the film to fractured, fractal shards as Teddy descends into madness. Production designer Dante Ferretti builds a starkly gorgeous world out of the island, and makes its rough rocks and smooth walls throb with fear. Some will express dismay at Scorsese putting so much effort into crafting what is, at heart, a slick and slender thriller full of ghosts and tricks. At the same time, who are we to tell Scorsese what to do with his time and energy?
DiCaprio continues his four-film streak with Scorsese in a performance that's less a role than an act of faith, in Scorsese's vision of Laeta Kalogridis' screenplay adaptation, yes, but also with the audience. "Shutter Island" exploits the way we watch movies, much like "The Sixth Sense" and "The Escapist." And, like those films, it also has an obvious emotional core and artistic ambition that go far beyond the simple pivot-point of the twist in the tale.
"Shutter Island" is a morbid, bloody thriller, yes, but there are great moments in it (Emily Mortimer has what may be the best single scene of unhinged acting power since Naomi Watts in "Mulholland Dr.," for but one example). There are also moments of unexpected tenderness in it, cracks in the darkness where light can still get in. "Shutter Island" is not a film from the lionized Scorsese who stands astride film like a colossus; instead, it's a giddy, gory gift from the Scorsese who sits beside us in the theater, elbowing us at the good bits and taking in the sinister spectacle up on the screen. It still builds to an emotionally powerful moment, one that almost makes up for the hey-now-with-the-what-now? convolutions of the plot. "Shutter Island" isn't the work of a great artist, but it is the work of a master craftsman, one who knows how to move your heart even as he rattles your nerves.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.