Martin Scorsese's grandly theatrical Shutter Island is a showy, arresting movie - an example of a master filmmaker's bringing all his toys to material another director might have taken more seriously. Fans of Dennis Lehane's novel, scrupulously adapted by screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis, will find the fiendishly complicated story essentially intact: In 1954, U.S. marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) investigate the disappearance of a prisoner at an asylum for the criminally insane on a remote island.
But the tone and mood of Shutter Island are different on the screen from on the page - the shadows darker than you imagined, the violence more ghastly, the blood redder. Shutter Island may have been conceived by Lehane, but the movie is Scorsese's show all the way. When a character says "God loves violence. Why else would we have so much of it in us?" he might as well be talking about Scorsese's entire canon.
For a thriller, Shutter Island is unusually heavy on exposition. Teddy has a tragic, complicated past that includes the death of his wife (Michelle Williams) in a fire set by an arsonist and his participation in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, where he saw things that left irreparable scars. Scorsese uses flashbacks and dream sequences to fill us in on Teddy's life, and some - such as a long panning shot of Nazi soldiers being executed - rank among the best set pieces of his career.
The rest of the movie is not quite up to that level. Shutter Island eventually gets so complicated that a character must sketch a quick summation on a blackboard - the result of a plot-driven movie by a director interested primarily in observing human behavior. Scorsese isn't emotionally connected to this material the way he was plugged into The Departed and Goodfellas and Raging Bull. Instead, he seems to be out to explore the conventions of the horror genre, as in Cape Fear, and to pay homage to his heroes while coming up with a few new tricks.
A lot of Val Lewton spookiness permeates Shutter Island, along with a strong Hitchcockian undertone (emphasized by some beautifully artificial process shots) about the realities people sometimes invent when they can't deal with their own. This is DiCaprio's fourth collaboration with Scorsese and, in many ways, the most intense and taxing, given that the actor plays a tortured, haunted man who must hold our attention even though we don't come to understand him until the movie's closing moments.
The more Teddy investigates the shady goings on at the asylum, which is presided over by a not-always-cooperative doctor (Ben Kingsley), the more convinced he becomes that things are not as they appear. Why do the institution's guards seem to itch for any excuse to use their weapons? What is the meaning of the puzzling note the missing prisoner left behind in her cell? Could the staff be conducting medical experiments on the patients? And why does a hurricane have to bear down on the island in the middle of Teddy's investigation?
Everything but the freak weather pattern is satisfactorily resolved by the end of Shutter Island, and the hurricane gives Scorsese the chance to stage several scenes in which the lightning, wind and rain thrash in the background. You've never seen a dark and stormy night quite like this one. Aided considerably by a score of sinister classical music supervised by Robbie Robertson - a score that makes you fear something awful is always about to happen - Shutter Island is popcorn entertainment polished to an unusually high sheen. Yes, you could argue the movie is simply a mood piece. But what a mood.