Despite a Best Director Oscar and numerous accolades, the last decade hasn't been Martin Scorsese's best: his films either lumbering behemoths or modest retreads. Gangs of New York was uneven, The Aviator overstuffed (in the way biopics habitually are), and The Departed a throwback to the mob genre which made him a household name. Sure, the latter won an Oscar, but arguably as a consolation for previous triumphs overlooked. In retrospect, it would seem as though he had lost some of that natural gift for storytelling that allowed his work to captivate and gave him the freedom to experiment with genre in a way that few directors can. That having been said, Shutter Island is his best work in a long time, serving to remind us of his versatility as a filmmaker and revitalizing the psychological thriller in one fell swoop. It is inspired but not confined by the classic Hitchcock mystery thrillers it seeks to emulate. Scorsese infuses his film with his distinctive but oft overlooked visual proficiency, creating tableaux at once nightmarish and indescribably beautiful.
The film opens with a perfectly white screen, like an empty page. Slowly, the outline of a ferry becomes discernible, moving forward through the mist, as though it had only just sprung into being. On board is Teddy Daniels (Scorsese muse, Leonardo DiCaprio), a US Marshal assigned to discover the whereabouts of an escaped patient of the Ashecliffe Asylum for the Criminally Insane, located on the remote Shutter Island. Joining him is his newly appointed partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), an amiable gumshoe hailing from Seattle. When the two begin their investigation, the wardens and doctors are none too helpful -- endlessly evasive and restrictive. Nothing seems to add up: the escaped patient, a war widow named Rachel who drowned her three children in a fit of madness, simply vanished from her locked cell after lights out. Compounding the mystery is the absence of hiding places on the island; at least not ones that haven't been combed over by the guards. Daniels begins to wonder if the patient ever existed in the first place . . .
To say any more would be to detract from the reader's future viewing experience. Trust me--the twists are worth waiting for. While the plot is a finely sharpened exercise in precision, the film's emotional meat lies in the many dream sequences and flashbacks. Dream sequences are tricky -- they often seem as boring and irrelevant as, say, your co-worker's dream where he was wearing mismatched socks while walking through his house, except it wasn't his house, it was the office, but in the dream it was his house (or something like that). Case in point: dreams are often of sole interest to the dreamer and, in films, tend to slow down the plot's forward progression. This is not so with Daniels' dreams. We are given an insight into his internal landscape -- a world littered with death, violence and tragic loss. Daniels continuously fixates on two subjects: his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), who apparently died in an apartment fire, and memories of the storming of Dachau. In the war dreams, we see piles of frozen bodies, slowing being covered by the endless downpour of snow -- seeming more a strange sculpture than a mountain of corpses. In the dream of his wife, her insides are burning embers, and at last she disentegrates to ashes just as he tries to hold her in his arms. These sequences -- disturbing, stark, but ethereal -- speak of the wounds inflicted upon a man who has seen the worst of humanity in his struggle to cope.
All of the actors are in fine order, however Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow are standouts as the island's psychiatrists. Altogether, this is Hollywood at its apex: entertaining, well-acted and resonant -- a rare treat in these lean times.