Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, a florid art shocker that Paramount welcomed into the world with the strained enthusiasm of a mutant baby’s parents, begins with U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leo DiCaprio) seasick, head in the toilet. The film is his prolonged purging, with Daniels coughing up chunks of his backstory in flashback and dream. Now topside, he joins his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), and their destination looms into view: an ominous hunk of rock in Boston Harbor that houses Ashecliffe Asylum, where they’ve been assigned to find a missing inmate.
Pounded eighth notes by Krzysztof Penderecki score a gathering-storm approach that anticlimaxes at a tidy, ecclesiastical-looking brick campus. They’re shown the grounds by progressive chief physician Dr. Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley), who manages to seem both a natty, patrician liberal, circa 1954, and a bit of a satyr, with his Anton LaVey bald head/goatee combo and ironic twinkle—an ambiguous balance Kingsley keeps seesawing throughout. They also meet Cawley’s colleague, Herr Doktor Naehring (Max von Sydow)—and Daniels, an ex-GI who witnessed the liberation of Dachau, takes an immediate dislike to the German.
As Daniels and Aule begin to investigate, there’s a sense that their presence is an inside joke with the staff, that they’re being given rehearsed misinformation. Daniels reveals that he’d heard sinister rumors about Ashecliffe long before this assignment, and not even a pretense of cooperation and normalcy can outlast their first hurricane-force dark-and-stormy-night on the island, when they trade their soaked civvies for orderly uniforms. (The film is elemental, whipped with fire, ash, snow, paper, bracken, and torrents of rain.)
As the outline of a conspiracy comes into view, Daniels’s digging brings on strobing headaches, hallucinations, and a shrinking list of trustworthies that ultimately includes only his dead wife, dolorous Dolores, visiting him as a beyond-the-grave Technicolor prophet (Michelle Williams, not quite right for “ethereal”; it doesn’t help that she’s upstaged by Emily Mortimer’s psychopath, who takes only one scene opposite DiCaprio to establish an immediate and spellbinding intimacy). As for DiCaprio, well, he’ll never step onscreen and immediately suggest a liver-and-onions Greatest Generation Ralph Meeker he-man—Ted Levine’s warden almost eats him at one point—but he has made suffering a specialty, and does so with an abandon that is frightening.
Production design maestro Dante Ferretti’s island is a rugged symbolist mythscape, pocketed with hidden places: soothsayers’ sea caves, Ward C, a squat Civil War–era fort where the most violent offenders are kept in a Goya madhouse, and, beyond it, the ultimate locked door—to the lighthouse! Scorsese’s return to his Roger Corman AIP roots is an object lesson in the proximity of high and low culture—Shutter Island is lousy with modernist references, soundtracked by avant-garde 20th-century composers, pretentious in the best Pulp-y tradition.
138 minutes is dangerously epic for a talky thriller, but you forget the time and even whether the plot makes sense—and if you don’t notice, it doesn’t matter. Since more attention has gone into filigreeing details into each scene than worrying about the way they’ll fit together, the rattletrap engages you moment-to-moment, even as the overall pacing stops and lurches alarmingly.
Though the film takes place entirely out-to-sea, the mainland isn’t left behind—it’s concentrated here into a midcentury chamber of manmade horrors. Loonies praise their island as a safe haven from news “about atolls, about A-bombs.” There are rumors suggesting the House Committee on Un-American Activities (!) is dabbling in brainwashing experiments. Daniels flashes back repeatedly to Dachau: a camp Kapo choking in his own blood; a firing line tracking shot popping with squibs like a string of firecrackers; piled corpses frozen into a horrible sculpture. No violence is unsuitable for aestheticization; at one point in the film’s web of visions, the perpetrator of a triple filicide points proudly to her handiwork and says, “See, aren’t they beautiful?”—and DP Robert Richardson’s image concurs.
Scorsese is as famous a movie lover as a moviemaker. This is manifest in his too-much-discussed homages, but also in his understanding of how his characters have themselves been shaped by entertainment, how they model themselves as actors in the American drama—Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, or Bill the Butcher addressing his public with Edwin Forrest brio at a performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Gangs of New York. (The announced Scorsese project, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, dealing with our nation’s premier self-publicist ham, has enormous potential.) Without revealing too much of an ending that everyone will soon insist on telling you their opinion of, Shutter Island, deep in its camp gothic trappings, seems to me a flea-pit occult history, with Daniels’s headspace a confusion of “Hideous Secrets of the Nazi Horror Cult” schlock, hard-ass Mickey Spillane machismo, Cold War psychic confusion, and the post-traumatic bad dreams of ex-servicemen.
In his documentary Personal Journey, Scorsese spoke of the ’50s as a time “when the subtext became as important as the apparent subject matter, or even more important”—and in Shutter Island, his most distinctly ’50s movie, he replays the trash culture of the era as the manifestation of an anguished subconscious.