Martin Scorsese's latest experiment with genre film is a dark, gasping production full of art and vision. He makes it clear that he is a genre outsider in all the right ways, eschewing tired and aversive horror conventions, and he fully demonstrates his skill at making a story his own. By taking a fresh road into familiar thematic territory, Marty creates a film that succeeds in far more ways than it fails.
Teddy (Leonardo DiCaprio), a US Marshal, travels by boat to Shutter Island, an isolated penitentiary for the criminally insane. He and his partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), are assigned with tracking down an escaped inmate, whose disappearance is completely inexplicable. They begin their investigation under the threat of an oncoming storm, which eventually traps them on the island with the dangerous prison population, and the staff, and each other. The stressful surroundings seem to spark some psychological backlashes for Teddy himself, who starts to struggle with traumatic memories and hidden motivations.
Aside from the intimidating surroundings and bad weather, Teddy and Chuck discover a maze of other complications: a staff that seems uncooperative, inmates who seem to know more than they should, and a web of inconsistencies that threaten to derail their investigation. Teddy's mission gradually leads him to a crisis of trust and conviction, and to a confrontation with inner demons that he himself has brought to Shutter Island.
First and foremost, Shutter Island is brilliantly crafted. Scorsese's mastery is on constant display, in the visuals, the sounds and scoring, the pacing, and the drama. His color palettes are calculated and effective: the overcast grays of the island, the lurid and unnatural hues of hallucination, and the frigid blue-gray of memory. He editing and camerawork are deft, and he reinforces his unhinged atmosphere with occasional tricks of the frame: jump cuts, a freeze-frame, and quick flashes of repeated imagery. It's among his most stylized work, but its perfect purposiveness keeps it from becoming gimmicky.
The score and sound editing deserves considerable credit for this success, as it's one of the most important parts of Shutter Island, which leans heavily on suspense and atmospherics. The score is a relentless, heavy-footstep, slow-building accompaniment to the film's ominous sets, and the sound effects can be alarming and disquieting. This approach is vastly preferable to "sudden cheap scare" tactics, which are present here and there, but never frequent enough to become lame and exhausting.
The stylization would be empty without Scorsese's expert handling of the narrative, which he makes interesting, despite some drawbacks. He works with some hammy dialogue and some standard genre-film awkwardness, like the tired convention of characters jumping into dramatic monologues during unrelated conversations. However, these flaws get lost in the flow of the story, which is breakneck, driving wildly through sudden transitions and developments, and from reality to flashback to dream sequence. In many blockbuster movies — ones that are calculated, or cheaper in their execution — this is a grave mistake. However, in Shutter Island, it creates a sort of manic delerium, causing the film's narrative binaries to blend together: interior and exterior, clarity and confusion, dream and memory and perception all lose their clear definition. With each successive revelation, the story seems to have just enough focus to stay together, but it is constantly unbalanced, an effective snapshot of a disturbed world.
As these scenes flow together, the film proves its true strength, which is its ability to evoke an intense emotional response. The standard horror convention is to be as aversive as possible, exploiting fear and disgust to cause a terrified chemical rush to the brain. Shutter Island steps just slightly back from this, mixing its terror with doses of tragedy, confusion, and determination. In evoking these emotions, Scorsese executes his scenes flawlessly, building the drama to a crescendo and releasing it time after time, like the guru that he is. He definitively validates his status as a filmmaker… where Tarantino created three(ish) high-tension scenes in Inglorious Basterds, and was praised endlessly for them, Scorsese does this in practically every scene, making for a film that's nerve-wracking, gut-wrenching, and ultimately heartbreaking.
In the end, Scorsese has created a dark, hard-edged drama laced with psychological horror. There may be a couple hiccups with predictability and overwritten dialogue, but these disappear in the voluptuous folds of a wild, challenging film. Scorcese's technical skill makes it effective… but its fearlessness and unrelenting intensity are what make it a really fantastic.