Shutter Island: Martin Scorcese Does Genre | A Tribute to ’50s Psycho Noir

Federal Marshals played by Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo DiCaprio investigate the creepy asylum in Martine Scorcese’s Shutter Island. ( Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)

One of the underrated pleasures of Martin Scorsese’s storied career is when puts aside making operatic films and sinks his teeth into genre pictures. Cape Fear and The Color of Money, for example, are vibrant, wildly entertaining B-movies by a master. Add Shutter Island to that niche. Part Sam Fuller schlock-corridor thriller, part Hitchcock widower fugue, and part haunted Holocaust epic, it’s muscular, intense, and gorgeously shot. The fact that it’s not among his “best” movies is of little importance. We’re lucky to get such a hefty piece of big-screen entertainment in the doldrums of late February.

In 1954, U.S. Federal Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are called to investigate a disappearance at an asylum for the criminally insane on secluded Shutter Island. It’s a huge, sprawling, mysterious compound. Everyone seems to be hiding something, including the two men in charge, Dr. Crawley (Ben Kingsley) and Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow). Sinister rumors abound. Teddy suffers from crippling migraines, hallucinations, and brutal nightmares of his time in WWII liberating death camps. And as he discovers more dark corners and conspiracies on the island, his sanity begins to unravel.

Based on the novel by crime writer du jour Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island has a Golden Age of Cinema vibe to it. It looks like Vertigo on a Massachusetts island and has a stately, three-act pace with the requisite mind-bender in the last third. DiCaprio is outstanding as a forceful yet wrecked man of war and justice. The entire cast is populated with creepy, portentous performances (the Warden!) and Scorsese and music supervisor Robbie Robertson (of The Band) establish an oppressive canopy of dread and tension.

There’s something a  bit intentionally hokey about Shutter Island. It’s like Scorsese knows the material isn’t as deep as he’s directing it to be. But that’s okay. Shutter Island doesn’t knock you out the way the best Scorsese films do—The Departed, Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, etc.—but it’s far from the lazy missteps of Gangs of New York or Bringing Out the Dead. It’s Scorsese crafting a really expensive love letter to one of his movie obsessions—the ’50s psycho noir, where WWII is the elephant in the room, the Bomb is the ever-present existential threat, Communists and Nazis are out to brainwash you, and the honest veteran and gumshoe never get over the girl that died. A-

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