That Martin Scorsese is among the handful of the world's best - if not the best - working filmmakers is a fact rarely disputed. But, much to my bewilderment, critics seem to only want him to make movies about gangsters. Obviously, Scorsese has done more to define that genre than any recent director this side of Coppola, so the enthusiasm is understandable, but I'm of the unpopular opinion that the work he's done in the last decade has been among his strongest (much like Spielberg - but that's another story). I enjoyed The Departed, but found it insluting when that film was hailed as a "return to form," after pictures like Gangs of New York and The Aviator had allowed the legend to stretch his wings and expand his filmic capacity.
Unsurprisingly for Scorsese, he decided to follow the critical, box office, and awards (including his first Best Director Oscar) acclaim of The Departed with something seemingly out of left field: a horror movie about an insane asylum. And again, unsurprisingly, the critical response has largely been a collective shrug. "Shutter Island is 'minor Scorsese,'" many have patronizingly said. The film may not be what people expect of the director, but that's half the fun; it's two hours of an auetur reveling in his love of cinema to tell a story that envelops the senses.
From its opening moments, as U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are ferried across foggy Boston Harbor, the movie strikes a tone of creepiness and dread. The Marshals are headed to Shutter Island, which houses Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, to investigate the disappearance of a patient. The soundtrack - a key component to any Scorsese entry - includes no score, but instead, a collection of discordant, modern classical pieces, just as defiant as the rock & roll that typically lines the director's films. When Krzysztof Penderecki's tense symphonies, also featured in The Shining and The Exorcist, immediately fill the theater, you know you're in for a scary good time. (If you're going to make a horror movie, look to the best.)
Alternately expansive and claustrophobic, the film's Shining inspiration is felt throughout, its framing and camera movement a reminder of Kubrick's hefty influence on Scorsese. It's also beautifully shot by frequent collaborator (and Oliver Stone/Tarantino mainstay), director of photography Robert Richardson, especially in vividly rendered dream and flashback sequences. As he did with Scorsese in Aviator, Richardson makes great use of color to propel the story's emotional beats, be they elegant or grotesque.
Its 1950s setting and Hitchcockian mystery structure naturally serve as an homage to noir films and B movies, but indeed, Shutter Island is able to overcome genre conventions by ultimately revealing itself as an emotionally driven tragedy. The fine cast, anchored by a strong, moving performance from DiCaprio (in his fourth outing with Scorsese), effectively pulls the audience into their characters' lives, enabling the story's sucker punch of an ending to truly sting. Ruffalo is perfectly cast as DiCaprio's affable, empathetic partner, and Ben Kingsley, genteel as always, has fun as Ashecliffe's chief psychiatrist, Dr. John Cawley, whose intentions seem compassionate one scene, and sinister the next.
Closely adapted from Dennis Lehane's (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone) pulpy novel by screenwriter Laeta Kalogridiso - whose previous credits are mostly in TV - the film explores intense themes of violence and its relationship to American society, while maintaining a level of ambiguity that allows viewers to experience the characters' sometimes tenuous hold on reality. Shutter Island thrills because we're watching a master filmmaker at work; if this is "minor Scorsese," I'll gladly take it.