Leonardo DiCaprio investigates a disappearance in "Shutter Island." (Paramount Pictures)
Movies that depend on turns and twists often leave audiences groaning. Too often, sudden illuminations and revelations feel convenient or rushed, bows tied round a box to keep the whole thing together.
Such is not the case with Martin Scorsese's taut psychological thriller "Shutter Island," a movie that keeps you guessing to the end and then -- miraculously -- makes the guessing pay off.
Working with a stunning ensemble of actors, Scorsese has crafted a work that reeks of classic filmmaking: It takes place in 1954 and looks like it was made in 1954. From its opening shots -- our hero, sick at sea as he approaches a remote island -- the film fairly brims with existential noir anger and angst.
That hero would be Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), a U.S. Marshal heading to an institution for the criminally insane to investigate the inexplicable disappearance of a woman (Emily Mortimer) there who murdered her three children.
Daniels and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), arrive to find an island that's almost a police state, run by Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), a psychiatrist who espouses progressive ideas even as many of his patients seem to be held in medieval cells. Although Cawley seems to be helping Daniels -- arranging interviews with other patients, offering him access to the missing woman's cell -- there's palpable tension surrounding the investigation and Daniels' presence on the island.
Some of that has to do with the presence of an apparent ex-Nazi (Max Von Sydow) on the medical staff, as well as a missing psychiatrist (Patricia Clarkson). But as a major storm rips into Shutter Island, the tension seems to be coming from everywhere at once.
And here we stop talking about the story, other than to say that what Scorsese does so right here, with screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis working from Dennis Lehane's novel, is to never stop on a dime. Rather than offer one Big Twist, he delivers a series of (sharp) turns that come with their own context, giving them a depth you don't expect.
Indeed, it's worth pointing out that one standout piece of acting -- Michelle Williams, does this woman know no limits? -- doesn't surface until near the film's end, where it just tears a hole in your neck. Both Mortimer and Clarkson shine, as well, with all three of the actresses involved here getting juicy, downright startling shots at the camera.
Still, "Shutter Island" is mainly a boy's club affair, with Leo holding the camera in nearly every scene. He, Kingsley and Ruffalo charge confidently through this film, no easy trick given the audience has little idea who they really are or what they're about. The key is DiCaprio's absolute assurance at all times.
This is Scorsese's fourth film with DiCaprio -- "Gangs of New York," "The Aviator" and "The Departed" are the other three -- since 2002. They have a way to go before they match Scorsese's output with Robert De Niro -- eight films from 1973-95 -- but they're well on their way in terms of both quantity and quality.
For reasons unknown "Shutter Island" was moved past traditional Oscar season and into a February release slot; hopefully, it won't be forgotten come next year's campaigns.
It's the sort of film that's tough to pull off, but Scorsese and company manage the trick beautifully. This movie will give you shivers.