Directed By Martin Scorsese
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Emily Mortimer and Michelle Williams
Shutter Island should have been a superb film. The best-selling novel that inspired the script was a stunningly unique psychological thriller by Dennis Lehane, one of the most celebrated crime writers of recent times. Lehane’s distinctive vision of the darkest sides of his beloved city of Boston has produced nothing but easily-adaptable cinematic gold (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone). But while he is usually concerned with the moral battle between the members of the lower working-class as unchangeable products of their environment and those that are able to rise above, Shutter Island was his break away from hardboiled P.I and crime books. He left behind his usually frank social commentary to create a nail-biting, complex locked-room mystery with a twist. Blending the traditions of detective pulp fiction with those of gothic horror, it was no surprise when Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese took the job of projecting Lehane’s visionary mash-up of genres onto the big screen. Scorsese too, has his roots in crime and has no problem adapting difficult material to produce great films (Goodfellas, The Departed). The pairing of Lehane and Scorsese should have been the standout thriller of the year, but as the tagline states: something is missing.
Shutter Island off the coast of Massachusetts holds the mysterious Ashecliffe prison for the criminally insane and is populated with the type of murderers that Scorsese has been romanticising for years, only these are being “treated”. The opening scene introduces us to US Marshals Edward “Teddy” Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) on their way to the island to investigate a patient escape. Once Teddy has overcome his sea-sickness, the pair’s initial conversation is like being teleported back to the golden age of the Hollywood b-movie. Sharp, disorienting camera switches of chain-smoking men wearing raincoats and slanted brim hats sets the noir tone of the film. If each frame wasn’t as beautifully colourful as the last, you might quickly become annoyed by the ultra-retro style. Luckily it becomes more palatable and other elements such as music and lighting keep the atmosphere consistent. The two are bought onto the island to the sounds of fantastically ominous cellos and violins, reaching its terrifying crescendo as the gates of Ashecliffe swing open. The landscape and production design of Dante Ferretti is breathtaking, Ashecliffes’ outer grounds becoming a surreal place of loud beauty and quiet horror.
Teddy and Chuck begin to look into the seemly impossible locked-room mystery situation of escaped patient Rachel Solando ands realise that nothing adds up and no one on the island is terribly interested in finding what happened to her. Their suspicious lead them to unhelpful but entertaining discussions with the pioneering psychologist Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and his strange German college Dr Naehring (Max von Sydow), where harsh comments are made on the traditions of each of their professions. Patients and staff are interviewed but it is soon revealed that Teddy has a more dishonourable reason for taking on the case at Ashecliffe. His wife’s murderer Andrew Laeddis is an inmate of Ashecliffe and finding him becomes Teddy’s obsession. Stunning dream sequences of the tortured hero give pieces of his background so to understand his passion. His wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) haunts him with details about her killer, he dreams about his time in the war, his part at the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp as well as experiencing other traumatic visions of the strange population of Ashecliffe. Beautiful music accompanies the gothic, haunting atmosphere that make up a fine soundtrack. Compositions of Austrian Gustav Mahler are used to emphasise the historic ordeal of WW2. The efforts of Brian Eno and Robbie Robertson do much to create the unique ambient and atmospheric music that is heard throughout the film. The 1960 song ‘This Bitter Earth’ by Dinah Washington is a perfect inclusion.
But while all these very good elements do add together to make an interesting cinema experience, the story doesn’t quite fulfil the expectations of such a great pairing of story and director. Scorsese is hardly a stranger to emphasising the paranoia found amongst the hazy moral minefields that damaged men walk (Taxi Driver, The Aviator, The Departed), but here he seems too confident that the audience will accept his characters at their shallow face value. The original novel provided a rich background to the Teddy and Dolores characters that made you understand the heartbreak that Teddy experiences and makes for a more powerful story. It was essential for the ghost of Dolores to have the deep character that in the book was established using flashbacks, but this is ignored for the film leaving her as a doll with a few lines of dialogue. This too with Dr Cawley, whom the filmic version leaves no room for Ben Kingsley to inhabit the bizarre character. Lehane’s more metaphorical waysides involving Teddy’s reoccurring fear of water wasn’t included, as well as important suicidal lines such as “she died in a fire . I miss her like you …if I was underwater I wouldn’t miss oxygen that much”.
Ultimately, all these things aren’t the real problem with the film. What stands out is that the paranoia isn’t there. The sensation of claustrophobia and the slow burning apprehension that made the book what it is, just doesn’t translate to this cinematic version. Each significant event that Teddy experiences isn’t treated with attention to their potential for terror and suspense, leaving only Leonardo DiCaprio’s great acting to focus on. In fact, most of the support actors that populate Ashecliffe are fantastic, as too is the scenery, but that doesn’t make the story any better. Screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis (Alexander, Pathfinder, Scream) can probably be blamed for this but Marty should really know better. The music and visuals are stunning and many people will enjoy the nostalgia that Scorsese laces to every frame of Shutter Island, but although this reviewer may be biased, he would strongly urge you to stick to the literature on this one.
You will love this if: You’re a fan of genre films and would love to see what a combination of Hollywood b-movie, hardboiled pulp fiction, locked-room detective mystery, gothic horror and psychological thriller looks like.
You will hate this if: You really love the book.
Shutter Island is released Feburary 18th in cinemas everywhere