Film review: Shutter Island

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MARTIN Scorsese follows up his Oscar-lauded The Departed with a surprising turn into B-movie shocker territory with the luridly entertaining Shutter Island.

Based on a tightly plotted, wilfully schlocky pulp thriller that novelist Dennis Lehane penned in reaction to the literary respectability he was starting to attract on the back of Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone (and their tastefully terse movie adaptations), the film provides Scorsese with a similarly ripe opportunity to rid himself of the shackles of being America's Greatest Living Filmmaker™ and indulge his passion for the primitive, pugnacious spirit of Sam Fuller, Alfred Hitchcock and the countless other studio filmmakers of the post-war era who made an art out of delivering cheap thrills for the escape-seeking masses.

Set in 1954 in a mist-shrouded fortress for the criminally insane, it's a love-struck homage rather than a work of pastiche, as overblown as his Cape Fear remake, if more involving. Squinting into a James Cagney grimace, Scorsese regular Leonardo DiCaprio gets another juicy lead as anguished US Marshal Teddy Daniels, a frazzled Second World War veteran haunted by the horrific scenes he witnessed as one of the first US soldiers through the gates of Dachau concentration camp.

Assigned to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a patient from the titular institution, what starts as a locked-room mystery in which no-one can figure out how infanticidal mother Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer) has managed to leave the building, soon transforms into a trippy, psychological freak-out as doubts are cast over Teddy's sanity.

This happens via a series of encounters with the hospital's almost comically sinister staff – including Max von Sydow's German doctor (to whom Teddy takes an immediate dislike) and Ben Kingsley's benign-seeming psychiatrist – as well a raft of inmates whose rantings may or may not be a reflection of the real world or Teddy's fractured psyche.

Additional intrigue comes in the form of Mark Ruffalo as Teddy's partner. His presence seems to legitimise Teddy's investigation but, as with everything else in the film, Scorsese injects his presence with an air of ambiguity, forcing you to pay attention while he has fun indulging his cinematic sleight of hand.

This being a Scorsese picture, the tricks he deploys are nowhere near as crude as the gothic horror B-movies he's riffing on, even his symbolism (lighthouses, fog, inclement weather) and imagery (spiral staircases, dripping pipes) often are. The different levels of realities the film works on melt into each other with the fluidity and aesthetic beauty of an Escher painting or a Dali dreamscape, which can feel a little disingenuous when we're being asked to swallow such a batty story. But that's part of the fun of Shutter Island. Even though we can see the twist coming a mile off and even though the material might seem beneath Scorsese (especially at this stage in his career when he hasn't had to justify every dollar spent on the budget), it's easy to take pleasure in a master filmmaker not only indulging his passions, but challenging himself by getting out of his comfort zone.

Shutter Island is the closest he has come to making a purely cinematic ride, yet it's the cinematic element of that ride, the way it incorporates the traditions and techniques of an entire strand of post-war American filmmaking, that makes it distinctive. Like his protagonist, Scorsese can't get the past out of his head, but he can transform it into something crazy, exciting and fresh.

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