It's clear what drew Scorsese to this material wasn't the depth of its story, but the chance it afforded him throw into a blender all his favorite influences, most notably Hitchcock but also Korean horror, Val Newton, Sam Fuller, and more. Marty doesn't hold back - grabbing a trowel in each hand he lays it on thick. I was half-expecting each new plot development to be greeted with a dramatic blast of old-timey, radio drama pipe organ. There are evil scientists itching to perform unnecessary surgery, a hurricane beating against the windows, single matches lit against the gloom, rickety iron spiral staircases, and, of course, deformed lunatics lurking in the shadows waiting to lunge at you. I imagine more than once Scorsese lamented that Vincent Price was no longer available, but Max Von Sydow will more than do in a pinch.
The story concerns the disappearance of a patient, played by Emily Mortimer, banished to Shutter Island for drowning her children. One night she seemingly vanishes from her cell leaving no evidence behind and with no one seeing or hearing anything. To paraphrase The Shawshank Redemption, "She was in her cell at lights out. Stands to reason she'd still be there in the morning." Leonardo DiCaprio is Teddy Daniels, who along with Mark Ruffalo are US Marshals called into investigate. Ben Kinglsey is the head psychiatrist with progressive ideas about treating the violent offenders under his care as patients instead of criminals.
And that's really all the set-up any review need get into. Suffice it to say there is more to the story than the marshals are being told, so much so that we in the audience wonder why they were sent for at all since they are met with immediate stonewalling and the entire hospital staff has the habit of responding to queries with vague non-answers. Not that it matters much, as we in the audience quickly gather that the narrative is on shaky ground when reality and visions of Teddy's tortured past begin bleeding into each other.
Hitchcock's Vertigo is one of the most obvious influences on Shutter Island and Scorsese would have been wise to note that past the brilliant style Hitch gave the viewer a place to safely stake their emotions. No matter what mysteries unraveled over the course of Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart's tragic love for Kim Novak's Madeleine was constant from beginning to end. Even when the plot twisted and turned on itself it only revealed new dimensions to the central love story. Shutter Island never lets the audience get their footing long enough for such a connection. Rather than emotionally investing in the story the audience is led to immediately start anticipating the rug being pulled out from under them. As a result, for all the operatic drama going on we can hear the plot gimmicks creaking away below the surface.
Mention must be made that the one completely successful part of Shutter Island is Leonardo DiCaprio's lead performance as Teddy. The all-star supporting cast is fine as expected, but Leo digs deep, adding layers and shadings not found on the page. DiCaprio went from being dismissed as a Tiger Beat pretty boy after Titanic to being panned for getting blasted off the screen by Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs of New York. Now, after this, his fourth collaboration with Scorsese, I would like to get at the head of those lining up to apologize for ever doubting his abilities. Between this performance and this high-tension jangled nerve work in The Departed, DiCaprio has grown into his role as Scorsese's go-to collaborator.
Somewhere after the release of Goodfellas, Scorsese went crossed from being one of the most respected cinematic artists in the world into bona fide living legend status. He's even become something of a box office draw in his old age as Shutter Island looks to be his third picture in a row to cross one hundred million in ticket sales. And while I'm not suggesting Scorsese has gone soft or that his work is no longer vital, I do confess to missing the hungrier Scorsese of the Seventies and Eighties before he had unlimited budgets. I'd be fascinated to see what Marty would come up with if he had to scrabble for his financing like Orson Welles had to do at this point in his career. For all the brilliant technicolor glory of Leo's dream sequences in Shutter Island, they are not nearly as effective at placing us in the protagonist's state of mind as one shot of Travis Bickle getting lost in the fizzing of his Alka Seltzer in Taxi Driver.
And that ability to put you inside the skin of his characters is one of the things that has always set Scorsese apart as a director. You watch Taxi Driver and you feel your grip on sanity loosening along with Travis Bickle. You watch Goodfellas and you tense up as the walls are closing in on Henry Hill. Even in his documentaries assembled out of old footage he gets you into the head of his subjects. Bob Dylan has always seemed an impenetrable enigma to me. It wasn't until I saw Marty's doc No Direction Home when I finally saw Dylan simply as the incredibly gifted musician overwhelmed by the impossible demands of his fans. The thing that keeps Shutter Island from breaking into the top tier of Scorsese's work is that he never manages to involve us this way with Teddy Daniels. For all the directorial flourishes the audience watches him as they would a rat in a maze.
Verdict: For all its myriad influences, the film Shutter Island reminds me strongest of is Christopher Nolan's The Prestige - another example of the top talent in cinema today creating a film of striking texture and intriguing story that nevertheless fails to connect emotionally. 7 out of 10