Martin Scorsese’s new film, Shutter Island, is one of those movies that plays with the audience in ways that make some people feel cheated, while others will be taken over by the sheer ability and craft of the filmmaker. Scorsese definitely pulls all the deceptive tricks he can out of his cinematic toolbox, but it is up to the viewer to decide whether or not he has constructed something meaningful.
This particular trope has been utilized before. One can think of films like The Sixth Sense and Angel Heart as kindred spirits to this film. Scorsese is also paying homage to the detective mysteries of the past here, and Shutter Island echoes the film noir of the '40s and '50s with its dark visuals and tone. Add to that the heft of the music arranged by Robbie Robertson that shatters scenes like a symphonic sledgehammer, and you have a movie designed to make you feel on edge most of the time.
It is 1954 and Leonard DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo play U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule, who have come to Shutter Island off the coast of Massachusetts to investigate the disappearance of violent criminal Rachel Solando. From the very first scene, Scorsese makes us queasy as Daniels experiences seasickness in the ferry bathroom. He looks disgustedly through the porthole at all the water, and we know we’re in for a bumpy ride.
The island facility for the criminally insane is an armed fortress, and guards at the gate inform Daniels and Aule that they must check their firearms. Daniels starts what will become a litany throughout the movie, reminding them “I am a U.S. Marshal,” a sort of “do you know who I am?” routine that seems to continually backfire on an island where the rules don’t necessarily have anything to do with the law back on the mainland.
Here they encounter Dr. Cawley (played with gusto by Ben Kingsley), the administrator who runs the place. He seems generally helpful in the beginning, but as Daniels and Aule try to dig deeper, Cawley blocks their attempts with red tape ranging from the board of directors to the protestations of a senior colleague, the decidedly creepy Dr. Jeremiah Neahring (Max von Sydow).