There are great directors, people that audiences would say “I would watch him direct an insurance commercial and I would still love it”. The reason that is, is that there are some directors whose panache and style and technique are so superior, that they can turn even the most banal programs or ads into art. Well, that may be a stretch, but it’s not too far off for one director of the famed Four Amigos, a group of auteurs composed of Oscar winners and visionaries. The four members are Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese. Each has made their mark on cinema somehow or another and they have all won an Oscar for best Director…well, except Star Wars helmer Lucas. But, the point is, the group will always have an audience of cinephiles.
Scorsese, having made incredibly important films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellas, and having finally won his first Oscar in 2007 for The Departed, takes it a slight step down from high art to just a really good B-movie noir. But it doesn’t matter, really, because Scorsese owns the picture and controls every movement of the camera, making it better and smarter than almost any director could have done. The film is based on Dennis Lehane’s novel.
Set in 1954, Teddy Williams (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) head out to Shutter Island, where they investigate the disappearance of an inmate at the asylum known as Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane. Rachel Solando has gone missing, but Teddy feels something lies beneath, something far more sinister and deadly. Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley) is the brooding and creepy psychiatrist, with Dr. Jeremiah Naehring (Max von Sydow) a suspicious doctor all the same. Williams eventually thinks he’s uncovered a conspiracy involving torture and experimental procedures performed on the patients, including mind control and lobotomies.
Not that it means much, but this noir epic of sorts is a fine film, made for the enjoyment of the audience without becoming too metaphorical. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Boston accent is kind of painful, and it sounded better in The Departed. But, what he lacked in Inception in terms of emotional believability, he has here in full amounts. A man who can’t let go of the past, this tortured soul is perfect for DiCaprio and he makes it believable and real without being melodramatic or fake.
The supporting cast is brilliant, with Michelle Williams playing Williams’s dead wife, Ruffalo as the partner, and Ben Kingsley playing a dark doctor .Ben Kingsley’s smooth intonation and calm enunciations make this role scary and even layered, giving him intellectual power and prowess.
The cinematography and score are the high points in the film. The sprawling shots slowly move like a slithering snake ready for attack. It is an attack in some way. An attack of the imagination and of the mind, pulling strings and bending light around your head. Twisty and tortuous, the film slithers throughout, confusing the audience and dissolving the fine line between reality and fantasy. Lingering shots of dead children and mauled Nazis flow across the screen, beautiful in a horrible and disgusting way. The flashbacks and dreamscapes add to the suspense and horror of the film. The score is a wonderful and powerful compilation of various classical pieces, some from John Adams and Ingram Marshall, which intensifies every moment on screen. Sometimes mildly cliché, but the moment is anticipated by the music, and it is well done.
Scorsese expertly crafts the film into a harrowing horror and a thrilling film. The camera flows, and DiCaprio plays a believable tortured soul. The plot is as twisty and shocking as the best Twilight Zone episode, but added is a sense of mystery and suspense created by a fantastic score. While it may not be high art, it makes for a fantastic psychological thriller.