16 April 2010
During the past eight years, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio have become arguably the greatest contemporary director-actor combo. Their last pairing, The Departed (2006), finally won Scorsese the best director Oscar that had eluded him so many times before. It was also the movie that, in my mind, established DiCaprio as one of our most dynamic leading men. It deservedly won the Academy Award for best picture and was one of the finest films of the decade (narrowly missing my top 10).
I tell you this so that it has meaning when I say that Shutter Island, the fourth collaboration between Scorsese and DiCaprio, is the best work they have done together.
This isn't Scorsese chasing an award or some other form of prestige. Or DiCaprio looking to be taken seriously as an actor and not just as the Titanic heartthrob.
These are two artists a master in Scorsese's case at the top of their games, not trying to impress anyone, but servicing a head-spinning, noirish, claustrophobic, paranoid nightmare. It's what happens when talented people put the story and picture as a whole above themselves.
And what a story this is, based on a novel by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone).
It's what would happen if the classic hardboiled detective of film noir found himself locked in a haunted house or, more accurately in this case, stranded on an island that houses a mental hospital for the criminally insane.
DiCaprio fittingly attired in a trenchcoat and fedora is U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, sent to Shutter Island off the coast of Massachusetts to investigate the disappearance of a dangerous mental patient. He's joined by an affable new partner from Seattle named Chuck (Mark Ruffalo).
Though Teddy and Chuck are told they have the run of the place throughout their investigation, they find obstacles in the form of Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), the psychiatrist who runs the facility, and Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), a German immigrant with possible Nazi ties (the year is 1954). Both doctors clearly are hiding something, but what?
Teddy has personal reasons for taking on the case, related to the murder of his wife (Michelle Williams), who has a starring role whenever he shuts his eyes. He's haunted also by memories of the horrors he witnessed and participated in while serving overseas during World War II. He insists he's done with killing, but Dr. Naehring recognizes him as a "man of violence." Crippling migraines overtake him as he begins to fear there are sinister goings-on in a mysterious old lighthouse. All the while, a vicious storm batters the island.
Had the movie stayed at its original release date last October, DiCaprio would be in contention for an Oscar at next month's ceremony. Now, we can only hope the Academy has a long enough memory to recognize him next year.
What Scorsese does best is set the mood, an atmosphere of impending doom. As Teddy approaches it from the mist-covered waters, ominous strings playing on the soundtrack, it is as if the island is some kind of malevolent entity, its rocky shoreline dotted only by forbidding structures that date to the Civil War and seem plucked from an Edgar Allan Poe tale. The island is something from a nightmare, a reflection of Teddy's tortured psyche.
The movie's ending will surprise, might confound or even lose you. But it holds up, Scorsese playing his hand as deftly as Lehane.
Just like the book, the movie is an intricately constructed puzzle, only the pieces keep changing, forcing you to reassess everything that has occurred.
(Rated R for disturbing violent content, language and some nudity. 138 minutes.)