Shutter Island, the new Martin Scorsese film, is a horror movie for aficionados who've had their fill of the current psycho-splatter norm. From its first sights and sounds - the crashing Krzysztof Penderecki chords that cue its classical/modernist soundtrack and the glimpse of the island itself, looming out of the gray day as a ferry slowly approaches it - this movie announces itself as something different, more classic, even Kubrickian.
It's a good genre horror movie and a terrific Scorsese picture as well: a beautifully crafted film with a brilliant cast and production values that, while not skimping on blood and guts, don't try to shock you with gore so much as play with your head, upset your conception of reality. It's an old-fashioned movie done with immaculate technique that tries to steep us in mood and suspense, rather than simply jolt us with escalating massacres.
The environment frays your nerves from the start: a madhouse in 1954 at the height of the Cold War. Set on a creepy, forbidding island in Boston Harbor, Shutter Island follows two streetwise federal marshals with Massachusetts accents, Leonardo DiCaprio as hard-drinking, sullen Bostonian Teddy Daniels and Mark Ruffalo as steady Chuck Aule (a standup guy who always calls Teddy "Boss"). They investigate the disappearance of a patient named Rachel Solando, a murderer who vanished from her cell.
Something is more deeply wrong here than anyone lets on - though, seemingly, what could be worse than being trapped on an island full of dangerously insane criminals as a hurricane approaches? The marshals are reassured about Ashecliffe Hospital by smiling, a-bit-too-friendly Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and his dour compatriot Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), who both seem intelligent and concerned. But Daniels is hip to the undercurrents - especially since Ashecliffe is backed by the House Un-American Activities Committee and Dr. Naehring is not Swedish but German. (And Teddy was one of the World War II soldiers who entered Dachau.)
What follows is a riveting story that keeps playing with levels of reality and sociopolitical tensions, but that may also be pulling us into a maelstrom of madness. The key to the movie's troubling effect lies in both the production (Scorsese uses Federico Fellini's production designer, Dante Ferretti) and in DiCaprio's superb performance as Daniels. The character's hair-trigger temper and rebellious disposition can be read as either paranoia, or as the tough cop's well-founded suspicions of everybody.
This film seethes with neurotic suspense, and it has a surprise or two. I'd recommend trying to avoid more reviews or too many conversations with people who've already watched Shutter Island before you see it yourself. And see it you should, if you have any taste for classy horror and Scorsese movies.