Shutter Island is adapted from a 2003 novel by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote the books that became Mystic River (2003), Gone Baby Gone (2007) and Live By Night (2016). The studio has clearly thrown a great deal at the film. Scorsese has also been able to call on an amazing cast, including Leonardo DiCaprio who has appeared in all of Scorseses last four (non-documentary) films and a host of other actors, almost all of whom would be name enough to topline a film on their own. The period settings have been recreated with great detail.
While Martin Scorseses other genre works Taxi Driver, Cape Fear, Bringing Out the Dead all feature strong genre material, they are not easily pigeonholed as genre works. Shutter Island is one occasion where Scorsese has set out to make a genre film, namely a 1940s styled psycho-thriller. You could easily imagine the film being not just set during but also shot in the 1940s and in black-and-white, probably directed by Alfred Hitchcock or Otto Preminger and featuring some tough guy actor of the era like Humphrey Bogart. Visually, Scorsese has travelled far from the jittery visual psychosis that recent works like Goodfellas, Cape Fear and Bringing Out the Dead inhabited and is in a much more classically composed mood than before the brooding landscapes and lighthouses recall Hitchcock, the asylum is a full-blown quote from Samuel Fullers Shock Corridor (1946), the hyper-real colour saturations of the dream sequences and obvious rear projections recall Technicolor films of the 1950s.
Scorsese builds the arrival at the island and the unfolding mystery extremely well. The film broods with menace from the oppressively loud and thunderous score to an incredibly sinister performance from Max Von Sydow and an even more disturbed and threatening one from Ted Levine. There is some amazingly foreboding locations and production design, including one that creates the C block as a unique structure with grass growing across its roofs. Scorsese directs some haunting scenes with the ghost of Michelle Williams wife appearing to Leonardo DiCaprio with warnings. The script has clear fun taking a series of dextrous Philip K. Dick-ian turns making Leonardo DiCaprio doubt what is going on, that patients do not exist and that everything has been an elaborate conspiracy to draw him in and silence his investigation.
[PLOT SPOILERS] Ultimately, these twists and paranoias arrive at a surprise left field ending of M. Night Shyamalan-esque proportions that reveals that Leonardo DiCaprio is the real mental patient and that all his paranoias are part of his unwillingness to confront the past as the doctors and staff conduct an elaborate masquerade to help him achieve a breakthrough. The it-was-all-a-madmans-delusion twist ending is one that has been done by a number of other films such as Session 9 (2001), They (2002), Identity (2003), The Machinist (2004), The Devils Chair (2006), The 4th Dimension (2006), Franklyn (2008), House of Usher (2008) and all the way back to the classic silent film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919). (There is also a surprising amount of similarity to the John Carpenter film The Ward (2010), which was released seven months later). Unfortunately, it is a hackneyed twist for the film to pull, especially in the post-The Sixth Sense (1999) era where a good many other films have served up weaker copies of Shyamalans reality bender endings. In this regard, Laeta Kalogridiss script is clever but not clever enough. She wheels the twist with suitable ingenuity but fails to catch all of the balls she is juggling. There are points when the twists are not plausible it stretches the mind to accept that an entire psychiatric facility would fabricate events, even ones that engage the patients, in such an elaborate masquerade to help a single patient achieve his breakthrough. Some parts of the film are never clear at the end revelation whether Patricia Clarkson was hallucination or part of the masquerade, or why the doctors would set up Emily Mortimer as a fake missing woman.
That Shutter Island manages to pull one in and make such a shaggy dog narrative rug-pull work is a tribute to Martin Scorseses consummate skill as a filmmaker. The question is is Shutter Island going to stand up alongside Martin Scorseses other masterworks like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ? I doubt it. Its a B-movie with an A- list budget and a particularly top-drawer cast but a B-movie nevertheless. One suspects that the script would have worked far more effectively further down the budget alphabet than the A-list production it is. As it is, the calibre of talent involved attached tends to show up the B-movie hokiness of the shaggy dog ending.
(Nominee for Best Director (Martin Scorsese), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Best Supporting Actor (Ben Kingsley), Best Supporting Actress (Emily Mortimer) and Best Supporting Actress (Michelle Wiliams) at this sites Best of 2010 Awards).