1954. A foggy Boston Harbour. A ship emerges from the fog, a US Marshall named Chuck is at the prow. Inside, coughing his guts out is his partner, Teddy Daniels. He looks directly at the camera and says, “Get a grip.” A warning amidst a convincingly menacing opening that sets the tone for Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island.
US Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) are on their way to Shutter Island, home of the criminally insane. The reason, they are going to search for a recently vanished inmate named Rachel (Emily Mortimer). After meeting the head of the institution, Dr. Cawley(Ben Kingsley) the two find the initial welcoming attitude might be a façade as they find themselves getting deeper into the institution and into a conspiracy. Throughout it all, Teddy Daniels is clearly haunted by memories of Dachau and his wife’s (Michelle Williams) death, his motives becoming mixed up in the case.
Based on the Dennis Lehane novel, this has a pulp feel as noir, cold war paranoia, 50’s thriller and World War 2 hangover are all conflated and sublimated into a deliciously thick narrative. The trick to the film is observation and reasoning like a detective.
What starts as a locked room mystery comes to encompass the entire island, giving the film a claustrophobic atmosphere. It seems that nowhere on the island is safe as question marks mount over characters. Importantly, Scorsese has nailed down the atmosphere of the 50’s films. Visually, everything is beautifully shot and has an air of class – even the trauma of Dachau.
Leonardo DiCaprio is masterful as the lead, essential for keeping audience with the plot. Mark Ruffalo and Sir Ben Kingsley brilliantly deliver the ambiguousness demanded while Michelle Williams as the siren-like ghost is enchanting, balancing sultry glamour and tragic mystery. The rest of the cast are uniformly excellent with Max von Sydow, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer in fine form, adding to the feel of the film.
The viewer, like Teddy Daniels, is searching for the thread that will lead the way out of the labyrinth of different narratives. We endure dreams, delusions and directorial misdirection which all add to the narrative fog. At points it seems like a realistic thriller losing its marbles, but close attention and interpretation reveal a well told story of great depth and creative invention and one of the most interesting films of the year.