It’s easy to dismiss Martin Scorsese’s 2010 psychological neo-noir thriller Shutter Island as an exercise in over-the-top B movie clichés, but the film stands as a masterclass in cinematic misdirection. Scorsese utilises conventions of low-budget horror movies, German Expressionism and film-noir to deliver a PTSD inflicted fantasy addressing the toll that unimaginable grief takes on a post-war masculinity.
Based on Dennis Lehane’s novel, Shutter Island stars Leonardo DiCaprio as U.S Marshal Teddy Daniels who, along with his new partner (Mark Ruffalo), is sent to investigate the disappearance of a patient at a psychiatric facility for the criminally insane on Shutter Island. As Daniels is frequently stone-walled and encounters suspicious behaviour from patients, orderlies and high-ranking staff, he begins to suspect that he may be at the centre of an elaborate and dangerous conspiracy.
Certain of shadowy institutional wrong-doings, Daniels’ behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and paranoid as he unwittingly plays into the psychological conundrum of perspective: If no-one can vouch for your sanity, how can you prove that your entire existence is not a subconsciously constructed fantasy? And, for Daniels, how can he hope to escape if everyone is part of a conspiracy to discredit his sanity?
Every character seems to have something to hide as we notice numerous sideways glances, smirks and double takes in response to Daniels questioning, as if there is a sick joke going over his head that everyone is party to. DiCaprio’s twitchy and emotionally unstable performance as a war veteran turned U.S Marshal is brimming with tightly wound scepticism and paranoia.
His past trauma is permanently etched across his face with certain recurring visual motifs prompting waking nightmares and fits of rage that further put his psyche to the test and weaken his defences of rational superiority.
Scorsese is clearly in his element and having fun with the various cinematic tricks up his sleeve from his encyclopaedic knowledge of genre staples. Period costume akin to those seen in hardboiled detective films, broad use of pathetic fallacy, and dramatic lighting and sound cues ensure we are never at ease.
He and long-time editing collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker heighten the sense of paranoia and actively seem to encourage continuity errors in service of misdirection through jump cuts, inserts and jarring static images.
The music cues of the film are perfectly selected in catering to the unstable and ominous tone. Whether it’s the maniacally honking orchestral piece used to establish the island or the use of contemporary pop to chilling effect, each musical contribution seems to signpost dread and fear. Mahler signals flashbacks of Dachau, Johnnie Ray evokes warped nostalgia, John Cage plays over horrific nightmares, whilst Max Richter’s harrowing “On the Nature of Daylight” seems to represent the underlying grief consuming Daniels throughout the film.
Once we reach the heart-breaking climax and Daniels’ fate is cemented, there can be no doubt of Scorsese’s mastery of genre or the strength of DiCaprio’s performance. Shutter Island was a landmark film for me regarding misdirection in cinematic storytelling and remains just as harrowing and thought provoking to this day.
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