In February of 1991, cineplexes were graced with the release of Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece, The Silence of the Lambs. What is now regarded as one of the greatest films of all-time (it ranks 74th on AFI’s top 100 list), was a surprise critical hit nineteen years ago. The film, which was almost released directly to home video due to a lack of studio confidence, went on to become only the third film to sweep the “big five” Academy Awards (Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay and Picture). Many were shocked, feeling that critics and the Academy were too snobbish to laud a “horror movie.” The truth is, they were, for The Silence of the Lambs is not a horror film. In reality, the film is best categorized as a crime-thriller with a haunting style and tone, but it is Demme’s ability to transcend genre that makes his film truly spectacular.
Now, almost exactly nineteen years later, moviegoers are being sold a terrifying cinematic experience, directed by the great Martin Scorsese. But, as with The Silence of the Lambs before it, Shutter Island is not a horror movie.
The year is 1954 and Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a Federal Marshall assigned to investigate a patients escape from mysterious Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, located on Shutter Island. Immediately upon arrival, Teddy and his partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), are inhibited by a total lack of cooperation from the hospital staff, mainly from head psychiatrist Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley). Frustrated by the difficulty in acquiring the participation of the hospital in his investigation, Teddy become suspicious of the hospital’s practices. He soon discovers that rather than treating his patients, Dr. Cawley is performing experiments reminiscent of those done by the Nazis in World War II concentration camps. Teddy begins questioning whether or not the patients are actually insane or if they are being made insane, and whether or not he can trust his own instincts, as he starting to feel a bit crazy himself. Audiences will soon discover, that as is on Shutter Island, nothing in Shutter Island is exactly as it seems.
Upon viewing Shutter Island, one might not immediately recognize what Martin Scorsese has achieved. He has crafted a film with a thrilling story arc that will appeal and satisfy general audiences, but with such compositional precision as to satisfy even the aptest of film buffs.
Scorsese and his cinematographer, Robert Richardson (Inglourious Basterds, The Aviator), shoot Shutter Island with so much style, you can actually feel it. “Visually stunning” is a phrase used far too often, but never before has it felt more appropriate than when describing this film. From audacious uses of angle and color, to the almost unnoticeable subtleties of certain cuts and shot lengths, every visual aspect of this film is absolutely perfect.
Further, Scorsese is able to pull noteworthily impressive performances from his entire cast, especially, albeit unsurprisingly, from his lead, Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio has taught us in the past that he can convincingly portray emotionally and psychologically complex characters, but his role in Shutter Island is among his most difficult and his performance is among his best. Shutter Island is largely a study on the development of his character, Teddy Daniels, and DiCaprio constantly proves to audiences that his journey is one worth watching.
Mark Ruffalo is also at the top of his game, delivering a performance that at first glance appears flat and disconnected, but in reality is spot-on. Rounding out the cast are Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Max von Sydow and Jackie Earle Haley (whose performance, while brief, is among the film’s best).
Scorsese has proven, once again, something we already knew: he is a master at his art. Nothing in his films happens accidentally, and Shutter Island is no exception. As a matter of fact, it should be the example. Everything, everything in this movie fits together so well, you are forced to second guess its perfection. There is no way a story that complex, and with such nuanced stylistic details, can work that well. But, alas, it does (if you disagree, watch it again; you will be blown away), and Martin Scorsese has given us the first great film of the decade.