What's this? One of Hollywood's true working masters ... lowers himself to work on a horror flick? Really? The man who brought us Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence, Casino, Gangs of New York, and The Departed has deigned to dip into the scary stuff? I'm being a wise-ass, of course, because only a movie newbie would assume that Martin Scorsese is a stranger to the dark stuff. Just look at the films I mentioned above ... or check out Mr. Scorsese's After Hours, The King of Comedy, or (especially) Cape Fear to see how this filmmaker approaches topics like alienation, obsession, insanity, and cold-blooded murder. Plus it's a well-known fact that Martin Scorsese is a ravenous movie geek, and therefore it's safe to assume that the man has at least some affection for the horror genre.
Ah, but there's that word again: horror.
Some would like you to call Scorsese's latest, Shutter Island, a "thriller," which it certainly is in the standard definition. It's a rock-solid and very dark tale of two federal marshals who are forced to visit an isolated island asylum in order to investigate the case of a missing patient. And as you can plainly tell from that brief synopsis, Shutter Island belongs on the "thriller" shelf alongside all those boring potboilers and slightly intense dramas about abusive husbands.
But in another very real way ... Shutter Island is Scorsese's first true "horror film" (unless you count Cape Fear, which makes sense), and I think the cinematic master adds a lot of creepiness, craftsmanship, and class to a genre that's often more focused on the bottom of the barrel. So while those who love the Agatha Christie mysteries and those somewhat conventional "detective thrillers" will find much to like in Shutter Island, I suspect that it's the hardcore horror collective who'll most appreciate what Mr. Scorsese has cooked up here.
Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, and adapted by screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis, Shutter Island would, in most hands, turn out to be a diverting but most likely forgettable matinee-style chiller. But in the obviously gifted hands of Mr. Scorsese, it's something pretty special. No stranger to onscreen violence and intensity, Scorsese creates an island landscape that's both darkly beautiful and effortlessly creepy. (And just wait till those storm clouds start rolling in!)
A crazy lady has gone missing from a seemingly inescapable medical facility, and it falls to U.S. marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) to ferry out to the outrageously creepy Shutter Island and figure out what's going on. And if you think this nasty little island is hiding one little secret about one absentee lunatic ... think again.
Scorsese and his screenwriter seem intent on raising the stakes for Teddy and Chuck at every turn. First they must give up their sidearms; then they begin to unearth some unsavory secrets; and then a storm comes pouring in; there's a killer on the loose; a few of the creepier inmates have some stories to tell; the asylum is in danger of flooding; oh, and Daniels seems to be losing his grip on reality. I've not read Lehane's book, but I can say that Shutter Island, the movie, feels like a huge mash-up of various horror concepts, tropes, and conventions. In the hands of most directors, that would equal "ripoff." In the hands of Scorsese, it's like a love letter to scary movies in general.
DiCaprio, finally starting to feel like a grown-up, delivers some rather fine work, especially as he begins to lose his grip on reality, while Ruffalo manages to steal numerous scenes as a sidekick who's a little more important than he first seems. The denizens of Shutter Island are a foreboding and eclectic lot: doctors on hand include Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow (heh); the warden is the intimidating Ted Levine; the head guard is the excellently pushy John Carroll Lynch ... and of course the asylum cells and hallways are populated by the likes of Elias Koteas, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, and Jackie Earle Haley. Yikes.
Whenever Martin Scorsese makes another fine film (which is often), fans and film critics like to say he's "re-inventing" the gangster film, the crime drama, the period piece, etc. I have no idea if Shutter Island "re-invents" the horror film or the psychological thriller, but I do know the film is pure and palpable evidence of a master filmmaker who's having some real fun with some very old-fashioned genre material. A smart, sharp, and unexpectedly engrossing little chiller, Shutter Island is a B-movie with an A-list pedigree, and this time out that combination works like a charm.