Cinematic history has been marked by several instances of an actor and director working together on multiple projects, sometimes spanning decades. This was more common in the Golden Age of Hollywood, when the “dream factories” were churning out film after film. Perhaps most emblematic of this trend are the 21 John Ford films over a 35-year period in which he directed John Wayne.
Certainly, Martin Scorsese is a throwback of sorts to these earlier times. He has directed Robert De Niro in eight motion pictures, including his Oscar-winning turn in “Raging Bull” and his iconic performance as Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver.” However, in recent years, Scorsese has turned to Leonardo DiCaprio as his favorite leading man. DiCaprio has appeared in four films directed by Scorsese, including his latest effort, “Shutter Island.”
Set in 1954, the film is based on the bestselling novel by Dennis Lehane. “Shutter Island” is the name of a federal mental institution for the criminally insane. Despite being virtually escape-proof due to its isolated location on a Massachusetts island surrounded by icy waters and strong currents, an inmate has escaped, prompting the arrival of federal marshals. The two marshals, Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), are immediately relieved of their weapons, and their access to the high-security facility is severely restricted by the institution’s head psychiatrist, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), and the deputy warden (John Carroll Lynch).
Daniels doesn’t trust his partner, as the two have never worked together. Daniels, it turns out, has maneuvered being assigned to the case as he independently gathered information convincing him the institution is secretly conducting surgical mental control experiments for the military. His theory is reinforced when Dr. Cawley and his mysterious colleague, Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), appear to be withholding information. Daniels doesn’t trust the German Dr. Naehring, in part because he is haunted by the atrocities he witnessed while liberating a concentration camp during the war. Eventually, Daniels becomes convinced the two doctors are conspiring to commit him to the institution in order to thwart his investigation.
“Shutter Island” is clearly an homage to film noir of the 1940s and 1950s. The trailers are a bit misleading as they seem to indicate it is horror movie rather than a psychological thriller. The melodramatic score and claustrophobic atmosphere builds tension right up until the final plot twist.
Interestingly, DiCaprio in this role is reminiscent of Richard Widmark, an actor who appeared in several film noir classics. DiCaprio, nearly 13 years after the teen hysteria generated by his starring role in “Titanic,” has matured into one of the finest actors of his generation. As Daniels, DiCaprio vacillates among the cocksure federal marshal, shell-shocked veteran and self-doubting conspiracy victim. The entire film lives or dies on DiCaprio’s performance, and he really delivers.
“Shutter Island” was originally supposed to be released late last year. With its February release, it is doubtful it will be remembered come award season, and it is probably too much of a potboiler to have been considered for anything other than DiCaprio’s performance. Because “Shutter Island” had the biggest opening for any Scorsese film and for DiCaprio second only to “Titanic,” delaying its release seems to have worked out well.
“Shutter Island” is a highly entertaining film and kept me engrossed. Unless one has read the book, the constant plot twists will produce confusion until the end. “Shutter Island” is well-made and well-acted and certainly worth the price of admission.
VAN NOVACK is the assistant vice president of institutional research and assessment at Cal State Long Beach and lives in Huntington Beach with his wife, Elizabeth.