The film is set in 1954. DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a US marshal dispatched to the titular oceanbound asylum to investigate the disappearance of a criminally insane inmate from her locked cell. He soon begins to suspect that this remote facility isn’t all it appears – is Ben Kingsley’s avuncular psychiatrist really as kindly and welfare-conscious as he seems? Why are the guards so heavily armed? And what’s with the mysterious lighthouse that all the patients seem so terrified of? To make matters worse there’s a hurricane coming in, the generators are on the blink and Teddy’s new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) is starting to look decidedly shifty. ‘Taxi Driver’ this ain’t.
Actually, the Scorsese movie it most resembles is his previous exercise in Hitchcockian overkill, 1991’s ‘Cape Fear’. With DiCaprio rather limp and forgettable in the lead, ‘Shutter Island’ lacks the centrifugal might of De Niro’s powerhouse central performance in the earlier film. But it compensates with pure visual, aural and narrative excess: this is modern gothic taken to its (il)logical extreme, a work of pure operatic delirium. The closest ‘Shutter Island’ gets to a commanding, De Niro-like presence might be its perverse, overbearing soundtrack, a selection of the most doom-laden pieces by modern composers ranging from Kryzstof Penderecki to Max Richter. Every twist in the tale is accompanied by a frenzied flurry of violins, every moment of violence underscored by a pounding, atonal piano crescendo.
While the narrative, adapted from Dennis Lehane’s 2003 novel, is hopelessly convoluted, the film is held together by the sheer bludgeoning force of Scorsese’s directorial vision. Never one to shy away from visual overindulgence, Scorsese has used ‘Shutter Island’ as an excuse to really throw open his box of tricks, chucking in gaudy but strikingly beautiful dream sequences, harrowing (if rather tasteless) concentration camp flashbacks and the most thunderous, howling rainstorms this side of ‘Suspiria’.
In fact, Argento’s film, a similarly monumental and manic triumph of style over substance, may be the most appropriate comparison here. And while Scorsese may lack the giallo master’s manic invention, the tension between his natural tendency towards old-fashioned Hollywood classicism and his evident desire to cut loose gives the film its strange, irrestistible power. As senseless, perverse and unwieldy as it undoubtedly is, ‘Shutter Island’ might be Scorsese’s most enjoyable film in a decade.