Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley and Michelle Williams
I've never been a huge undying fan of Martin Scorsese's work the way many film fans and critics seem to be, but he's one of the directors I most admire. Part of this is because he's very good at what he does, but perhaps more of it is because he's a fan himself, first and foremost, a student of the craft of making films who learns and grows and remains humble throughout, as is obvious when watching his documentaries. While his early films sprang out of some sort of yearning to tell personal stories as catharsis or outreach, ones that I'm gradually coming to understand, it's his later ones that seem more interesting to me precisely because they're not his stories. While I usually prefer material that pours out of a filmmaker's head without outside influence, Scorsese is different. I prefer watching him exercise his talent using cinematic tools he's collected from long decades of absorbing his craft, often ones that most serious filmmakers ignore.
I've never been a huge fan of Leonardo DiCaprio's either but that's probably because I first encountered him in Titanic and so have naturally hated him ever since. Over time he's won me over through sheer emphasis, each role impressing me despite Titanic until finally I can leave that behind and just enjoy his work. He scrunches his face a little too often here but he still gives another fine performance that underlines why the great directors want him so badly and keep him so close. He earns more respect in my book for beginning this film throwing up, as this is the sort of behaviour you might expect from a character actor rather than a star, but he seems to be happy to avoid that accolade. This time out he's a US marshal named Teddy Daniels, some sort of legend in the eyes of Chuck Aule, a new deputy who he first meets on the boat to Shutter Island, but a seasick legend who really doesn't like the water in Boston Harbor.
It's an effective way to begin, even though these scenes have that very recognisable look that screams greenscreen even though they're well enough shot that we can't see the seams. There are a number of these shots in this film and I can only hope that filmmakers will get better over time at fixing it. Scorsese and his crew are better at it than most but they're not quite as good as they need to get yet. Fortunately there's a thoroughly engaging story to make up for it, adapted by Laeta Kalogridis from Dennis Lehane's bestselling follow up novel to Mystic River, and there's a seriously talented cast to instil it with fascinating life. On the face of it it's a missing persons case, though Rachel Solando is hardly your average missing person, given that she's a patient at Ashecliffe, a federal institution for the criminally insane that's housed on Shutter Island. She doesn't know she's there, just as she doesn't know that she drowned her three children in a lake.
Dr John Cawley, who runs the place, sees the people in his care as patients rather than prisoners. It's 1954 and psychiatric care is going through something of a sea change, with people like him at the forefront. He doesn't favour traditional approaches like lobotomies and pharmacology, preferring even with extreme patients to try to reach them and help them face the realities of what they've done. Or at least so he says. He's played by Ben Kingsley, hardly a minor name to flesh out an apparently sincere but potentially sinister authority figure. He soon makes himself memorable with a couple of odd comments, but his assistant does that from moment one. He's Dr Naehling, played by no less a name than Max von Sydow, and he appears to us in a rather opulent setting for a hospital for the criminally insane, which along with his European accent reminds Daniels of Dachau, which, as a World War II veteran, he helped to liberate.
You see, Daniels has issues too, which manifest themselves as visions and memories, ones that over the course of the film gradually become more and more apparent. These are stylishly shot visions, often with something falling. One has him talk with his dead wife, who burned to death in a fire, in a room that is gradually becoming drenched in ash. Yet this is not an effects movie, as evidenced by the effective storm Scorsese whips up, which has a visual component but even more of an atmosphere. Even the scenes at Dachau are less intense than we might expect but have a notably freaky air about them. It's less about what was done there and more about the uncertainty of what would happen next. The storm builds into a hurricane which permeates the film, keeping water everywhere and the light from ever being consistent. Scenes in the high security Ward C are superly done, all naked men, whispers and undefinable danger.
The suspense is aided by our many questions, though it's notable that they're often more about where Scorsese is taking us than what Marshal Daniels is going through. There's a tiny but very important delineation there, because we learn about where Scorsese is taking us through what Marshal Daniels is going through, but often we're paying attention to the men behind the film rather than the ones in it, even when the conspiracy theories build. Daniels is there on false pretenses because he's been looking into the place from the outside, learning from a former patient called George Noyce that they're experimenting on people. The doctors in charge consult with secret intelligence agencies. They're funded by HUAC. Maybe Daniels didn't find his way to them through his own choice; maybe while he was looking at them, they were looking at him and set him up to think it was his idea to turn up. Maybe they want to commit him to keep him quiet.
Visually Shutter Island is a treat, courtesy of some memorable settings, though the island itself is a construct of various farflung places stitched together with CGI. There's far less Val Lewton influence here than I was expecting, as this seemed like a logical project for Scorsese after his documentary Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows, this influence being most obvious in Ward C. It was impossible not to notice the motion of the camera. There are so many tracking shots that the camera seems to always be in motion, only for odd scenes to arrive where it stays static. Pattern recognition forces us to analyse the reasons why. Yet at the end of the day this ends up being all about the story, which is slick and solid, never obvious but always accessible, though apparently a little more action oriented than the source novel, which Dennis Lehane wrote as a hybrid of the Brontë sisters and the original version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
It's obvious from moment one that there are twists coming, but we still have to put those jigsaw pieces together to get the full picture. Unfortunately, as with The Sixth Sense, I concentrated on looking for a big twist only to discover that I'd assumed the reality of it from the beginning and there wasn't another one for me to find. Unlike The Sixth Sense, though, I wasn't disappointed because I constantly questioned myself here about whether I was right rather than whether that was all there was. While it held no real revelations for me, it was fascinating to watch the story grow anyway and enjoy the careful unfolding of the jigsaw's picture with hints that point in different directions but remain consistent. And in the end there was a little twist anyway, a subtle and appropriate one, that has us thinking all over again, not about the story any more but about its ramifications. This gave Scorsese his best opening weekend ever and he deserved it.