I once had the chance to introduce Martin Scorsese at a New York Film Critics Circle awards dinner (he was presenting an award) -- and took the opportunity to say out loud that I felt fortunate that my career as a film critic coincided with Martin Scorsese's career as a filmmaker.
That sentiment still holds. Every film he makes is more than just food for thought -- it's a full banquet. Scorsese is one of only a handful of directors working whose passion for the medium bleeds through in every frame. He forces the critic to bring out his A game -- to watch and analyze the film with the same energy and imagination as the filmmaker brought to making it. And that's absolutely true of Shutter Island, his latest film.
Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island continues the collaboration between Scorsese and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who has become the kind of muse to the second half of Scorsese's career that Robert De Niro was for the first half.
DiCaprio isn't just a star -- he's a smart, resourceful actor intimately in tune with his emotions and capable of nearly anything on screen. In Shutter Island, he plays a man convinced that there's a plot to drive him crazy -- and fearful that it may be working.
The references and homages in the film are multiple, everything from Out of the Past to Shock Corridor and The Snake Pit to Hitchcock's Spellbound. There are more -- and yet this is absolutely Scorsese's film from start to finish, beginning and ending with blasts of cello and bass that resemble the stentorian tones of a foghorn. It's as if the score is warning: Careful -- it's easy to get lost in this murky labyrinth of the mind.
DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. marshal who, with partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), has been sent to Ashecliffe, a mental asylum for the criminally insane located on a forbidding island off the coast of Massachusetts. They've been summoned because one of the inmates ("patients," the persnickety head doctor keeps saying, correcting references to them as prisoners) seems to have escaped.
That head shrink is the punctilious Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley, looking like a bow-tie-wearing goblin), who seems oddly distanced from the situation at hand. Yes, he's concerned that the patient, Rachel Solando, a woman who drowned her three children, seems to have vanished. But he doesn't seem to think she can get very far, given the daunting cliffs that ring the island.
Yet he's summoned the U.S. marshals to the island, once a Civil War-era fortress. Teddy, however, is suspicious of the assignment. As he explains to Chuck, who is his new partner, he believes there's something larger at work here.
In fact, Teddy is convinced that there's bad mojo afoot.