Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Forty-Five

50 10s 45

#45 — Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010)

Martin Scorsese didn’t owe us any more high art. That was clear. By the time the calendar flipped over to the twenty-tens, Scorsese had already amassed forty years of astonishing accomplishment, and he had finally received an overdue Oscar for directing, albeit at a point when the Motion Picture Academy needed the validation of the association more than vice versa. After The Departed, Scorsese took a while to land on his next narrative feature, with a middling Rolling Stones concert film to pass the time. When he got there, it was a swirling, hallucinogenic thriller, the sort of thing producer Val Lewton might have ordered up had he lived through the swinging sixties and the coked-up seventies.

Shutter Island is beautifully, bountifully bonkers. Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, the movie follows a pair of nineteen-fifties lawmen, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), who are dispatched to an institution for the criminally insane located on the landmass of the film’s title. They are there to look into a patient’s disappearance, but the staff of the facility are elusive and unhelpful. More problematically, the foreboding confines start to unnerve Teddy, who has some recent personal trauma he hasn’t fully reckoned with. As situations intensify, Teddy gets increasingly lost, emotionally flattened by frightening hallucinations and starting to doubt everything he believes to be true, even seemingly solid facts right in front of him.

This was Scorsese’s fifth film with DiCaprio in the lead, and he’d developed a certainty about the best way to exploit the actor’s gifts. First and foremost, it always helps if DiCaprio is playing a character who’s just a shade too stupid to handle the situation he finds himself in. That’s combined with a mental unraveling that suits DiCaprio’s preferred method-adjacent intensity. Scorsese’s joy in prodding this favorite actor of his into ever-greater contortions of discombobulated agony hovers over the film like a sheen of shiny mist, as if he’s moments away from helplessly cackling just out of frame the way he does in his documentary that’s comprised of little more than Fran Lebowitz sitting in  a booth and talking.

Scorsese’s jubilation translates to every other piece of the filmmaking. Long a master of the total cinematic craft, Scorsese brings a freewheeling inventiveness to conveying the narrative. There are touches of the kinetic showboating Scorsese employed a couple decades earlier in his remake of Cape Fear, but he holds his handful of wild cards tighter. That control is boon. Shutter Island is lent a festering gloom that heightens the suspense in a way easy jolts don’t. Scorsese and his team of peerless collaborators (including cinematographer Robert Richardson and lifelong editor Thelma Schoonmaker) exhaust every possibility the can cook up without ever making the film feel overburdened by busy business. It instead hums with the pleasure of telling a wild story and telling it well.

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