Expert, screw-turning narrative filmmaking put at the service of old-dark-madhouse claptrap, “Shutter Island” arguably occupies a similar place in Martin Scorsese’s filmography as “The Shining” does in Stanley Kubrick’s. In his first dramatic feature since “The Departed,” Scorsese applies his protean skill and unsurpassed knowledge of Hollywood genres to create a dark, intense thriller involving insanity, ghastly memories, mind-alteration and violence, all wrapped in a story about the search for a missing patient at an island asylum. A topnotch cast headed by Leonardo DiCaprio looks to lead this Paramount release, postponed from its original opening date last fall to Feb. 19, to muscular returns in all markets.
As Kubrick did with Stephen King’s novel, Scorsese uncustomarily ventures here into bestseller territory that obliges him to deliver certain expected ingredients for the mass audience and adhere to formula more than has been his nature over the years. Although “The Departed” and “Cape Fear” come close, “Shutter Island” is the film that most forces the director to walk the straight and narrow in terms of carefully and clearly telling a story; if testing himself within that discipline was his intention, this most devoted of cinema students among major American directors gets an “A.”
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He also chose his material well. Dennis Lehane’s 2003 novel is quite a few notches above the norm for mass-market popular fiction; ingeniously structured and populated with a rogue’s gallery of intriguing, deceptive characters, the book is a real page-turner, spiked with game-changing twists, which draws upon perfectly legitimate medical, legal, historical and political issues.
It even offers an ending sufficiently ambiguous enough to inspire genuine debate. At its heart, however, it’s still a potboiler, smartly fashioned to yank the reader this way and that while providing a veneer of moral inquiry for respectability’s sake.
The script by Laeta Kalogridis (an exec producer on “Avatar” said to have worked closely with James Cameron on developing the project) faithfully hews to the letter and spirit of Lehane’s tome, leaving Scorsese and his top-drawer collaborators with the largely technical task of crafting a drum-tight suspenser that won’t take on too much water via the many memory flashbacks and surprise developments.
Working in a format that recalls the moody, low-budget horror mysteries of the 1940s produced at RKO by Val Lewton — most pointedly “Isle of the Dead” and “The Seventh Victim,” but in a far more visually vivid and explicit style — Scorsese employs an exquisite modern equivalent of old-fashioned process work to show U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) chugging the 11 miles on a ferry between Boston and the eponymous island that’s home to Ashecliffe Hospital
Warned by welcoming deputy warden (the excellent John Carroll Lynch) that the place houses only “the most dangerous, damaged patients,” the two men get an eyeful of weird, zombie-like inmates doing menial work around an institution that resembles an impenetrable fortress — because it was built as one, for use during the Civil War.
It’s a heavy, deeply ominous place, outfitted by production designer Dante Ferretti to instill not only menace but also unease and anxiety; it’s deliberately made difficult for Teddy and Chuck, as well as for the viewer, to understand the proximity of one place to another, to know where one stands literally and figuratively, to decide where it’s safe and where it’s not. Cloaking the mood is the pervasive disquiet of the Cold War tension of 1954.
This makes it harder to get a handle on the task at hand, which is finding Rachel Solando, the murderer of her three children, who somehow escaped from her tiny room, got past guards and presumably made her way out onto the island. The man in charge, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), is elegant, erudite and helpful, albeit only up to a point, and after interviewing staff and patients, Teddy and Chuck begin to feel they’re on a fool’s errand.
But there are forces that keep the men on the rocky, densely forested island.
Teddy, a grizzled World War II vet tormented by the fiery death of his wife (Michelle Williams in flashbacks) two years before — as well as by visions of the corpses he found at Dachau upon helping liberate the concentration camp — finds a cryptic note left by Rachel in her room that drives him forward. He may have hidden reasons of his own for sticking around. Then there’s a gathering storm, which cuts off telephone and ferry service even before reaching full hurricane-level intensity.
One can rest assured that Teddy is not alone in concealing secret motives and agendas. In fact, everyone has them and, beginning an hour in, they are parcelled out in astutely measured doses to keep you hanging on to the very end.
Along the way, there are encounters with a brilliant doctor with a suspicious German accent (Max von Sydow); a perilous descent into the bowels of the notorious Ward C, home to the worst of the worst; rising suspicions about what really goes on in this place and accompanying doubt as to whether anyone who arrives on Shutter Island ever is allowed to leave.
This is high-end popcorn fare adorned with a glittering pedigree by a powerhouse cast and crew. DiCaprio appears deeply into his role; a lot is asked of him, physically and emotionally, and his battle-and-tragedy-scarred veteran embodies a tangible anguish. Ruffalo is ideally cast as the older but junior agent who takes a lighter approach to serious matters. If this story had been made in the heyday of noir, Kirk Douglas could have played Teddy and Robert Mitchum would have been a perfect Chuck.
Kingsley and von Sydow bring their smooth confidence to bear on their roles as institution big shots, while Jackie Earle Haley and Patricia Clarkson score in their individual big scenes.
But the greatest interest lies in the craftsmanship, which is provided in spades by Ferretti, cinematographer Robert Richardson, visual effects and second-unit overseer Rob Legato, costume designer Sandy Powell, editor Thelma Schoonmaker and dozens of others. Even when it’s clear Scorsese has decided to employ fakery and allow it to be obvious, it’s done with elegance and beauty.
Of at least equal interest is the soundtrack, supervised by Robbie Robertson, which employs mostly modern serious and classical music in the same manner of intelligent sampling that Scorsese normally uses rock and borrowed movie compositions. The sudden infusions of discordant, atonal and otherwise unsettling passages by Ligeti, Penderecki, Cage, Adams and, more traditionally, Mahler, among numerous others, further amplifies the sought-after climate of malignant ambiguity.