The Scorcese of the past 15 years or so has been living in one almighty shadow. The past was golden: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull. Films that buzzed with a strange knowledge, a classical perspective of the dirty streets. 21st century Scorcese is almost unrecognisable to 20th century Scorcese; indeed each of Scorcese's post 2000 films seem to me stylistically unrecognisable from each other, the signature on each piece vague or missing, with only a recent habit of distinctive colour saturation suggesting a stylistic consistency. Granted, the similar Scorcese themes of male relationships, honour, power struggles, greed and ambition permeate each film. Gang's of New York; The Aviator; The Departed; Shutter Island. One of the few certainties of these recent films is the presence of Leonardo Dicaprio playing increasingly troubled and marginalised men.
Maybe I expect too much: he has after all made several of the most distinctive and enjoyable movies in cinema history, which is no small feat. Or maybe most directors of contemporary 'prestige' or indie-crossover movies have learned so much from Scorcese that any new output appears to be modish. His influence haunts the frames of Paul Thomas Anderson, The Coen Brothers and Jacques Audiard all of whom have released decade defining films in the 2000s.
As expected, Shutter Island is nothing like The Departed and it is all the better for being such a unique film. The Departed was Scorcese on auto-pilot: a remake and guaranteed box office success, with a starry line up all queueing up to take turns to shout and ham it up in front of the camera. Shutter Island is an altogether different prospect. A conscious throwback to the best psychological noirs of the 40s and 50s , the film is indebted to Jacques Tourneur and Otto Preminger - not the most obvious box office draw in today's shaky market.
[SPOILERS] Dicaprio plays US Marshall Teddy Daniels who has been sent to Shutter Island mental institute to find a missing inmate, Rachel Solando, a disturbed woman who murdered her own children. He's ex-army, he's no-nonsense and he has a past, hinted at in several instances of longing stares off camera and 'far-away' looks. Teddy is accompanied by his unassuming new partner played to modest and terrific effect by Mark Ruffalo and together they set about their investigations, guided around by Ben Kingsley's head doctor and and occasionally running into shadowy Max Von Sydow.
Teddy's past starts to crop up frequently, he is plagued with migraines and back story filling dreams where we see Michelle Williams (so good in Wendy and Lucy) - his dead wife - and his experiences in liberating Dachau. When the final revelation comes it is not so much as a revelation but a falling into place, the logical deduction that Teddy is an inmate himself finally confirmed and ironed out by the somewhat far-fetched 'role-play' that Kingsley and Ruffalo had devised.
What is truly striking about Shutter Island is the verve of the direction. Scorcese makes up for the glib plot by throwing himself into each scene. The period detail is excellent, the acting direction is restrained and subtle, allowing each player to get to grips with their character and never appear as the stencil cutouts that they appear to be under close scrutiny.
The cast is excellent. Dicaprio is safe and competent as the troubled Daniels, as usual not quite showing that spark of brilliance, but never allowing himself to be phony or anything other than charismatic. Von Sydow adds another late career cameo to his growing list with a textbook demonstration of confident, quiet menace. Ruffalo, who was the biggest surprise, was excellent: meek, faithful and mild mannered, he seemed to seep into the air of each scene, never truly standing out, but by the end of the film you understand why he lingered in the background and what a great strain it must be for an actor to play a 'watcher' successfully. Unlike The Departed where everyone seemed to be vying for who could burst a vein first each character in Shutter Island inhabits the film world completely: Ben Kinglsey isn't Ben Kingsley, he is Dr Cawley, which is just as it should be.
The dream sequences, all gaudy colours, heavy symbolism and emotion, were a surreal delight. Several traveling scenes were obviously shot on green screen, and as noted in many reviews and journals, fits in with the nostalgic atmosphere of the film in its conjuring of Hollywood's golden years. The disjointed feel of Dicaprio's wanderings, the many (deliberate?) continuity errors, the saturated blues and greys of the sea and sky, the reliance of CGI for those vertiginous seascapes: Scorcese has crafted a sick mental mindscape for the screen.
A surprise then, after a decade of middling output. It seems Scorcese is starting to experiment again. Lets just hope this warped new perspective isn't lobotomised by box-office success.