Dead wives and daydreams test Leo’s sanity in Shutter Island

Arts & Entertainment/Film and TV by

Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese’s new psychological thriller, has dominated the box office since its release on February 19. Grossing a mean $40.2 million, it also marks the illustrious director’s most successful opening weekend to date. Though not on par with his best films, Shutter Island reflects Scorsese’s genius simply by being meticulously put together, well-cast, and generally captivating – a feat that many films currently in theatres have failed to achieve. Dealing with the shaky definitions of crime, insanity, and reality, the film firmly holds the audience’s attention.

The plot follows US Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has been sent to Shutter Island to investigate the report of a missing patient from Ashecliffe Hospital, an institution for the criminally insane. As soon as Teddy becomes certain that the doctors are illegally experimenting on patients, his grasp on reality is weakened by vivid nightmares and incapacitating migraines. Towards the end of the story, reality and fiction have furiously bled into one another, forcing the audience to decipher the truth. Set in 1954, the film trembles with a combination of Cold War paranoia and emotional trauma from World War II.

As always, DiCaprio delivers a vigorous performance, leaving even the most inert of audience members feeling exhausted. We identify with his Teddy throughout the entire film and fight alongside him to uncover the truth of Shutter Island. Perfectly embodying the thematic tension of the film, his last scene exudes a fantastic uncanniness that could only be conjured up by the likes of Leo. Also commendable is Sir Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of Dr. Cawley, a head psychiatrist at Ashecliffe who exudes an uncomfortable eeriness, playing tricks on both Teddy and the audience.

Scorsese orchestrates surrealist scenes of nightmares, flashbacks and hallucinations in ways that are so hauntingly beautiful and vivid that they move like waking dreams. Particularly captivating is Teddy’s nightmare in which his dead wife (Michelle Williams) bleeds water, smoulders red like embers, and finally turns to ash in his arms. Equally impressive are Teddy’s reoccurring flashbacks of liberating a death camp during the war – in one we see a German officer bleeding to death in his office as Mahler blares from a gramophone and papers float around the room, invoking the mood of a sinister snow globe.

Scorsese references Hitchcock’s Vertigo, North by Northwest, The Case of Mr. Pelham, and Psycho in ways that merely index, but do not expand the themes of identity and psychosis “the master of suspense” first brought to the table. He also emulates aspects of many classic horror films: a storm blows in right when it should, doors fling open, the power goes out, cellos wail, crazy people jump out of the dark, and so on. However, these references come off as intentional rather than unimpressive. Scorsese cheekily appropriates throughout his entire film, giving it the feel of a found-footage concoction, which emerges not as cheesy, but as entertaining pulp fiction.

Shutter Island is no Taxi Driver or Goodfellas, but it definitely deserves its current spot at number one.

Shutter Island is playing at Scotiabank Theatre.