Leonardo DiCaprio is currently doffing his cap on the publicity rounds because of his role in Christopher Nolan's dreamy flick, Inception, in which he plays a futuristic kind of secret agent, charging into peoples' dreams all the while haunted by his dead wife. It's worth mentioning here only because Shutter Island immediately precedes Inception on DiCaprio's CV, and the pair share certain qualities. Mostly in that both are cleverly layered and play on your sense of reality, but also in that they well illustrate how far the former heartthrob has come since the days of Titanic.
In the Martin Scorsese-directed Shutter Island, we see DiCaprio as US marshal Teddy Daniels, dispatched to an isolated mental asylum off the Boston coastline. It's 1954 and, together with his partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), he has been charged with tracking down a dangerous patient who has somehow escaped from her barred, locked room. Shutter Island itself is a forbidding place from the beginning, almost laughably so. As the boat docks, bringing Teddy and Chuck across from the mainland, ominous, Hitchcock-style musical notes strike in single succession, like a ferry's fog horn announcing their arrival. Rifle-wielding guards greet the pair and point out Ward C, a grey, Bastille-like building where the most dangerous prisoners are housed. The patients in the garden around them are stereotypical lunatics, with faraway expressions on their faces as they pick flowers in their regulation pyjamas. Almost more ludicrous is Dr Cawley, the man in charge. Played magnificently by Ben Kingsley, he wears immaculate tweed suits and puffs languorously on a pipe. He and Teddy clash immediately, as the marshals try to track down the missing patient despite little palpable help from the authorities. Why is everyone so shady?
Scenes are spliced with Teddy's flashbacks, skipping between surreal, dream-like sequences with his dead wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams, in a sub-story that also bears a resemblance to Inception); to graphic images of his role in the liberation of Dachau as a soldier in the Second World War. As the weather on the island deteriorates, so too does Teddy's apparent mental state. He tells Chuck that he specifically requested this case because he wanted to track down the pyromaniac responsible for burning his apartment and so killing Dolores. He then voices his suspicions about the lobotomies he suspects are being carried out on the island, and their purpose. His hands start shaking, his hallucinations worsen. As a hurricane sweeps in, he collapses with a migraine. To say more would spoil things, but it's a gripper.
DiCaprio is marvellous. Isn't he always these days? It will probably induce a wince to say he's shaping up to be one of the finest actors of his generation, but reflect upon his past three film appearances, from Revolutionary Road to this (his fourth outing with Scorsese at the helm), and then on to Inception. Up next is the Clint Eastwood-directed biopic of J Edgar Hoover, with Leo in the star role.
It's a well-constructed film too. A latent sense of danger permeates the island; Ben Kingsley merely needs to drag once on his pipe and he becomes as menacing as Dr Crippen; Teddy's hideous, dark memories of the war are brought to the fore by a German psychiatrist stationed there; the innards of Ward C are perhaps too obvious (all dripping taps and flickering lights), but then so is that honking music.
The camped-up elements to the film work, though, in the sense that this is designed as an old-school, suspense thriller. It was based on the book, penned by the Mystic River author Dennis Lehane, who himself previously admitted that Shutter Island was written in homage to the gothic, to B-movies and to pulp. Its translation from page to screen has been masterfully handled.