Shutter Island

Film: Shutter Island
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Michelle Williams, Ben Kingsley
Runtime: 138 mins
Review: Laura Coleman
Rating: ****

It is not often that a film’s trailer underrepresents rather than overrepresents the dramatic force of the film itself. With Shutter Island, however, this is arguably the case. Despite a somewhat slow start – the establishing scenes are prolonged and too reliant on dialogue – the action and suspense begin to develop alongside each other at a dramatically unrelenting pace.

In many scenes, perhaps especially in the nightmarishly vivid flashbacks, there is a beauty-in-violence characteristic of Scorsese; the combination of gloomy setting and sharp, stirring dialogue make for an atmosphere no less compelling than that of 1976’s Taxi Driver, and DiCaprio’s bottled-up, ready to explode protagonist Teddy Daniels has a charisma to rival even that of Travis Bickle.

Much of the film’s tension is carried by DiCaprio, whose perpetually concentrated expression and brooding, muttered delivery help tauten the film’s already ominous mood. As the leading man in Scorsese’s 2006 work The Departed, DiCaprio played the part of tormented hero convincingly; here the intensity of his performance is doubled.

Control is arguably a key element in the film’s effectiveness, and DiCaprio’s vice-like control over his character works in a similar way to Scorsese’s carefully orchestrated manipulation of his audience. As the climax approaches and the twists reveal themselves, new dilemmas are opened up and the audience’s grip on what is and what is not real within the film is shaken.

The plot acquires a fresh layer of ambiguity even as it is clarified, which is testament to Scorsese’s masterful skill in creating suspense that endures throughout – and beyond – the duration of the film.

Although the atmosphere of foreboding is created using classic conventions of suspenseful cinema – storms, low-angle shots backgrounded by an overcast sky, a solitary lighthouse – Scorsese avoids falling into the trap of cliché by keeping these conventions consistently present at a subtly low level throughout. The effect of this is more than merely gripping cinema: Scorsese constructs an on-screen world so tense and so imperceptibly distressing that the audience becomes implicated in the very sensation of psychosis that the film appears to present objectively.

Indeed, with its frenetic alternation between outdoor and indoor scenes, theme of doomed searching and mounting sense of cabin fever, the film is itself like an island: a self-contained, claustrophobic and deceptive realm that is nevertheless, in the greatest sense, impossible to escape from.

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