There’s something mesmerizing about Martin Scorsese and the answer as to what finally dawned on me while watching him accept the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes almost a month ago. No, it’s not his furry caterpillar eyebrows tucked behind his bold, thick-framed glasses, nor is it his infectiously happy speech and big-toothed grandpa grin. To be precise, it’s his absolute and lasting love of all things cinema, which was unmistakable as I listened to his gracious remarks after receiving the prestigious award from the Hollywood Foreign Press.
Don’t believe me? Consider Scorsese’s 64 Oscar nominations and 15 wins (along with 51 Golden Globe nominations and 9 wins) over the last 42 years and show me another director with the similar accolades who isn’t considered one of the greatest of all-time. Add to Scorsese’s resume his romance with film history and film preservation and it’s easy to see the pure love and craftsmanship he saturates in each and every movie he directs. Nothing could be truer of his newest picture, Shutter Island, faithfully adapted from the 2003 novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane, who is also the brains behind Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River (made into fantastic movies by Ben Affleck and Clint Eastwood, respectively).
Shutter Island is a dark crag of rock jutting out of the Atlantic Ocean and a seemingly short ferry ride from Massachusetts’ mainland. Set in 1954, toward the end of the Second Red Scare, the movie opens with two U.S. marshals – Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) – heading to the island and Ashecliffe Hospital, a home for the criminally insane, as well as a recent patient escape – this one a particularly violent triple murderess, Rachel Solando. As the deputy warden (John Carroll Lynch) takes them to meet the head of the hospital, Dr. Crawley (Ben Kingsley), the atmosphere of the island’s inhabitants – even the rustic and antique buildings – seem to mirror the oncoming physical and psychological storm brewing in the movie’s margins.
I think it’s important to note here, despite the trailers suggesting otherwise, Shutter Island is not a horror movie. It’s not even really a scary movie, yet I was full of unease and dread through most of the runtime. And rightfully so, because a simple task of finding a missing person on a tiny island isn’t so simple when everyone, from the chief physician to the marshals themselves, has a grim cellar of secrets clamoring to escape. I can’t say much more without revealing plot points that could be construed as spoilers, but suffice it to say, Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kaolgridis stay true to Lehane’s original work. I was particularly fascinated with the artistry given to Marshal Daniels’ dreams, memories and waking nightmares. There is one particular scene, when Daniels is remembering his service in World War II and the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, that is so beautiful and repulsive all at once that I couldn’t help but smile and tip my hat to Mr. Scorsese.
Along with the stellar editing, cinematography, art direction and music (all handpicked by Scorsese’s pal Robbie Robertson), all of which set the brooding, ominous mood of the movie, enough can’t be said of the acting. DiCaprio, Kingsley and Williams are at the top of their game in Shutter Island, particularly DiCaprio, who continues to impress me with his power and passion onscreen. Kingsley exudes a frosting-covered-creepiness, and every thin-lipped, awkward smile he donned gave me the willies. As for Williams, it’s fitting she would be in a motion picture characterized as “film noir,” because she is a soft-spoken, delicate beauty whose screen presence hearkens back to the sirens of the 1940s and 1950s. Still, to be fair, despite their standout performances, I should mention the supporting cast – Ruffalo, Jackie Earle Haley, Lynch, Elias Koteas and even Ted “Don’t Call Me Buffalo Bill” Levine – is rock solid and adds to the overall award-feeling quality of Shutter Island.
Bottom line, fans of Lehane’s novel will find Scorsese’s vision of Shutter Island a fabulous jump from page to screen. Same goes for Scorsese admirers – they’ll appreciate the elaborate detail, creative energy, craft and intensity the director gives the film. However, casual moviegoers – folks that do cartwheels over Paul Blart: Mall Cop or who think The Blind Side is indeed a best picture candidate – will probably walk out feeling sleepy, bored and cheated. If that’s you, I’d pass. Leave the meaty cinema to the purists and true aficionados.