Let’s face it, cinematic realism is a red herring. When watching masterful cinema, whether the projected story is fact, fiction or fantasy is not an issue, such is the engrossing property of the moving image. It is a flickering lie, and it fills our eyes with illusion and magic.
In Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese builds a psychological thriller that looks intently at madness, and the blurring of reality and imagination that comes with it. Adapted from the novel by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone), the film stars Scorsese stalwart Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels, a 1950s US Federal Marshal who is sent to the titular location – which is home to an isolated, high security institution for the criminally insane – as part of a case. Initially tasked with investigating the disappearance of Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), one of the island’s patients, Daniels slowly progresses through a mental ordeal – traversing trauma, nightmare and memory – that excavates his recent past – namely family tragedy, and the innocence-staining experience of World War 2.
At its most immediate, Shutter Island is a spot-on exercise in tension and mystery. The institution holds many secrets, and the narrative itself unfolds to pose many questions, taking in hints at post-war, Red Scare paranoia, and ungodly experimentation. Stylistically, the film mirrors this, pitching between the posts of the Gothic and the Surreal. This is pure spook territory, filled with shady corridors, mansions, lightning storms, fizzing bulbs, and creepy doctors – here represented by Sir Ben Kingsley’s playful (alternately warm and foreboding) turn as Dr. Cawley, and Max Von Sydow bringing much odd ambiguity to Dr. Naering.
Mystery soon gives way to madness, however, as Daniels’ sanity starts to unravel under the island’s influence. It is here where DiCaprio shines, imbuing the character with a toughness, an intensity of speech and action that jars wildly with his bright pink tropical tie. Furthermore, Daniels’ dreams and nightmares puncture through the veil of sleep into the reality of the waking world, as visions of his wife (Michelle Williams) appear, and his motives become suspect.
Scorsese, along with his creative team, including editor Thelma Schoonmaker, production designer Dante Ferretti and director of photography Robert Richardson, uses these tropes to dazzling aesthetic effect, with some startling sequences of mental anguish: dreams that dance with black ash, that are subtly dislocated by garish colours and artfully unsettling, disorganised editing, arresting images that blow open character development, and guide the narrative through its many twists and revelations. Throughout, the film builds an atmosphere that envelops the viewer, crafting a landscape where reality and madness co-exist, where the most shocking moments do not consist of out-of-your-seat shocks, but shifts in characterisation, perspective and representation. It doesn’t bludgeon with explicit horror style, but pursues a more off-kilter route, focusing on killer sound design, and a disquieting score, made up of tactful choices from the dissonant and disturbing work of 20th century composers such as György Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki and Morton Feldman.
It’s a depiction of mental turmoil akin to that of Vertigo and The Shining, for sure, but Scorsese’s work grows beyond this, bringing the whole medium under its gaze, twinning Daniels’ quest for both psychological and investigative truth with a dissection of film’s capability to distort fiction and reality. Its shifts from classicism to Gothic expressionism, from crime procedural to character study, from sanity to madness, expose how cinema can set up a unique form of unreliable narration, leading the audience to question their own understanding of what is happening on screen. Shutter Island may not court attention and accolades in a similar fashion to Scorsese’s previous three feature films – which were all stylish exercises in American mythology, three epics of the country’s crooks, dreamers and pioneers – but it is certainly a nutritious, clever specimen. It melds a reverence for classical Hollywood cinema with a creative flair that gives the film a fresh and powerful personality, exhibiting an innate understanding of the magical and surrealistic properties of the medium. However, even when these deeper textual aspects are pushed aside, Shutter Island is still a thriller that is gripping, chilling and wholly entertaining.