Based on Dennis Lehane’s novel, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island takes place in 1954 on a compound in the middle of Boston Harbor that specializes in the containment and care of the criminally insane. It’s a fortress of almost abstract horror, surrounded by cliffs on all sides and given to inclement weather, including a hurricane that flattens trees and chips away at the mighty structure. In other words, it isn’t a setting designed for dramatic restraint. Using every tool at his disposal, Scorsese honors Lehane’s pulp intensity by amplifying the story to the fevered Grand Guignol of a Park Chan-wook movie, or Sam Fuller’s asylum classic Shock Corridor. There’s a purpose to all this madness—though to talk about the primary reason the film succeeds would be giving the game away—but it should be appreciated first as a vivid, waking nightmare.
Doing only a minor variation on his tortured Bostonian from Scorsese’s The Departed, Leonardo DiCaprio stars as a U.S. marshal summoned to Shutter Island after a female patient mysteriously disappears. As DiCaprio and his partner (Mark Ruffalo) make inquiries of the patients and staff, they’re baffled first by the seeming impossibility of the woman leaving a locked cell and slipping past security, and second by her escape off a rock that makes Alcatraz look like the county pen. All investigative avenues appear to lead to Ben Kingsley, the Dr. Moreau of this experimental facility, who treats his inmates as patients rather than criminals, but seems to be hiding a darker agenda. For his part, DiCaprio brings his own share of personal baggage: He’s haunted by memories of liberating Dachau, and his wife’s death in an apartment fire.
What begins as a simple missing-person procedural slowly morphs into full-on psychological horror, as more disturbing revelations come to pass and the stress on DiCaprio starts eating away at his nerves. Scorsese renders his hero’s nightmares in vivid Technicolor flashbacks and dream sequences that insistently bleed into reality and cloud his judgment. Scorsese’s talent for aligning the audience with a single character’s obsession pays off brilliantly as Shutter Island unfolds, and potent single-scene turns by Jackie Earle Haley and Patricia Clarkson draw it further into the darkness. Shutter Island may initially seem like a nerve-jangling genre piece in the Cape Fear mold, but it’s more like Scorsese’s The Shining, a horror show where it’s sometimes hard to tell the haunted from those doing the haunting.