Shutter Island is the pulpiest film Scorsese's ever done. That's not in any way to say that it's the worst film Scorsese's ever done, simply the pulpiest. Martin Scorsese is a director who generally aims to make great, classic cinema almost every time he steps up to the plate, a tendency that would be annoying as hell if he weren't literally one of the best artists ever to work in any medium through all recorded history, so it's interesting and a bit unexpected to see him unleash his talent after a four-year gap since The Departed onto the first pure, unapologetic popcorn-muncher of his career.
And if you thought that the tough cops and thick Boston accents and blaring Dropkick Murphys music of The Departed lacked subtlety, then Shutter Island is gonna really ruin your day. This is noir pulp drawn in the broadest possible strokes: fog and gloom penetrate everything, the shadows are long and black, the buildings ominous, the cliffs jagged and foreboding, the wind and rain and lightning overpowering and exhausting, and the performances very flashy (except for Mark Ruffalo, for reasons that make sense in the plot), all creepy glances and ragged dialogue and intense whispering that would border on overacting were they not in such able directorial hands. It's the cinematic equivalent of a master artist doing his latest painting in primary colors. It's such an immensely stylish movie that it overcomes any narrative shortcomings to stand proud as an impressive thriller.
The movie opens with a U.S. Marshal played by Leo DiCaprio on a boat to the Ashecliff Hospital for the criminally insane on Shutter Island. He and his partner have been brought in to investigate the case of patient, Rachel Solando, who seems to have impossibly escaped from her secure cell. As a hurricane settles over the island the findings of DiCaprio's investigation become less and less explicable and more and more personal and we descend into a psychological nightmare that comes to include secrets, conspiracies, escapes, chases, Nazis, and at least one explosion. The film's format of exponentially swelling insanity restricted to one fixed location is more than a bit reminiscent of Kubrick's The Shining.
I'll say straight up that I don't think this movie has a particularly great script. Not a bad one, mind you, but the magic here is indisputably on the set and behind the camera, not at the typewriter. When the investigation uncovers evidence of a mysterious unknown patient somewhere on Shutter Island, you don't have to be even close to as big a cinephile as I am to see exactly where things are going, and the story soldiers on to the conclusion 95% of you will predict as reliably as the sun comes up. It even adds a bit of insult to injury by climaxing with an extremely lengthy exposition dump that goes so far as to include a character pulling out an honest-to-god blackboard on which to explain the movie's plot.
So yes, in the hands of a lesser director with lesser aesthetics, Shutter Island could have been raw mediocrity. But man, the aesthetics — I just love the style of this movie, so much that I hope Scorsese does another equally blunt, subtlety-free movie, and soon. Shutter Island generates so much thick tension out of thin air that it's incredible; the nightmare just keeps building, the pacing aggressive and the movie getting more sinister by the minute. The cinematography is gorgeous, a perfect representation of what modern noir can and should be, except for when we cut to DiCaprio's dream sequences filmed in vivid, breathtaking color. Not noir, but still damn gorgeous.
Speaking of DiCaprio, I think this is probably his third best performance yet outside of Catch Me If You Can and The Departed, overcoming any vestiges of lingering boyishness and giving a driven depiction of the tough cop at the film's center. Ben Kingsley however still ends up dominating as the head doctor of Ashecliff, with some help from Max von Sydow, together forming a duo of unparalleled creepiness. Like most everyone else in the film they aren't playing it low-key, but they'll make your skin crawl and they greatly spice up any and every scene they're in.
I mean it in a good way, more or less, when I say that Shutter Island represents a triumph of style over substance. It probably won't be nominated for Best Picture and I don't think it needs to be (although the directing and cinematography are another matter), and actively doesn't deserve any writing awards, but it's simply a really cool and stylish bit of detective pulp with a psychological horror coat of paint on it. I think the teenage male standing in front of me in line for Alice in Wonderland said it best: "I went to see Shutter Island but I ran out and went home as soon as they showed a dick on the screen, because I was afraid I was gonna see another dick."
3 Stars out of 5