Something about 1974 must have stuck with Martin Scorsese. That year, the director's film Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore garnered three Oscar nominations, his first recognition by the Academy, but lost two, one to neo-noir classic Chinatown and the second to the all-star mystery flick Murder on the Orient Express. It also marked the birth of future frequent collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio. In their fourth feature together, the pair present Shutter Island, a thriller that is equal parts psychological drama, murder mystery and good old-fashioned ghost story.
U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) has been assigned to search for an inmate (Emily Mortimer, or is it Patricia Clarkson?) who has escaped from the island asylum. Working with new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), Teddy arrives onshore minutes before a typhoon leaves the two stranded with the inmates and their caretakers (including Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow). The marshals are permitted to scour the island, but forbidden to approach Ward C, which houses most violent offenders. But Teddy, still mourning the recent arson-related murder of his wife (Michelle Williams), has another reason for going to Shutter Island. His wife's murderer may also be an inmate there.
Considering the critical and financial success of the first two adaptations of author Dennis Lehane's work--Mystic River (2003) and Gone Baby Gone (2007)--it probably seemed like a smart move to put Shutter Island on the screen. But Lehane, who says the book was inspired by B-movies and pulp fiction, probably wasn't hoping for a buy-it-in-paperback production. Scorsese is a consistently solid director, but heavy foreshadowing and excessive emotional asides render the surprise ending impotent. The final twist, when it comes, feels inevitable. There are plenty of jumps and suspenseful sequences leading up to it--the best being an extended on-edge foray into Ward C--but the thrill of this thriller isn't found in its red-flagged red herrings.
It's tempting to assert that Scorsese didn't intend to make Shutter Island as a mystery/ghost story, which is how it seems to have been marketed. The film's frequent allusions to humanity's heinous actions--an abused housewife who axed her problem, the H-bomb, concentration camps--point toward a subtler message about the inherent insanity of "sane" men. Early on, von Sydow, playing one of the asylum's top physicians, delineates the difference between men of violence and violent men. This definition colors a later conversation in which Teddy is asked, "Can my violence conquer yours?" It's a touchy topic, the question of whether mankind has an obligation to enforce a moral order on others at the cost of a life. Scorsese's answer seems to be sometimes yes, sometimes no. The physicians on Shutter Island, although eschewing the pacifying practice of lobotomy, struggle with knowing how else to control certain dangerous patients. Even Teddy's implied final dilemma--to say more would spoil it--seems to point to a different directorial intent. The threat of violence and the sometimes crazy reactions to actual or imagined peril seem to be Scorsese's true theme, not the thrills of a psychological crime drama.
Production-wise, Shutter Island is spot-on. While in general, not much can be said of DiCaprio--an actor given only moderately difficult roles in challenging films--the entire cast makes a marvelous ensemble. Particular praise should be reserved for Clarkson and bit player Jackie Earle Haley as a Ward C inmate, their cameo appearances each providing a memorable addition to the island's mania. Thelma Schoonmaker's tight editing juxtaposes serene real-time scenes with face-slap flashbacks, and the back-and-forth soundtrack, featuring such diverse composers as Brian Eno and Gustav Mahler, feeds the audience's festering paranoia. While Shutter Island doesn't deliver on its ghost-story trailer promises, as a meditation on moral compulsion, Scorsese scores.