This is far from the most original plot ever devised, but Scorsese and company so insistently pile on layers of paranoia and dread that you quickly forget the familiarity. Our main character, Teddy, is haunted by nightmares about his late wife, as well as what he saw as an infantryman when he was part of a squad that liberated the Jews imprisoned at a concentration camp. There are ongoing references to the hydrogen bomb, and the patients are spooked by this new-fangled contraption they've heard about called "television", where pictures and voices fly through the sky. The movie makes modern life, or at least modern life in the '50s, feel panic-inducing.
And make no mistake, this is a movie designed to install paranoia within you. The stylized clothing and speech, act to keep us distanced from everything, so that we never can shake the feeling that something just isn't right, and all the mysterious visions and talk of horrific experiments on the patients make the fear unrelenting. Even the sound design adds to the terror in a variety of ways; a subtle echo makes the inside of the buildings feel cavernous, and there are long stretches of silence disconcertingly punctuated by sudden sound effects.
At the centre of it all is Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor who can still surprise me with his talent. His performance is difficult to praise without ruining some of the movie's suspense, but as the final credits roll you can't help but think back on what you've seen and marvel at how complicated his role is; what initially seems like a fairly one-note performance blossoms into a fully realized portrait of a good man beaten down by what he's experienced. But he's far from the only standout in the cast: Mark Ruffalo provides flawless support as his partner and Ben Kingsley savours every morsel of his dialogue. In addition to those fine actors, Scorsese and his casting director have filled out the supporting roles with some slightly sinister actors. Most notable for me was John Carroll Lynch (the main suspect in David Fincher's Zodiac) who portrays a guard. Scorsese plays on our collective suspicion of these shady characters to maintain the sense that the threat to Teddy's safety is omnipresent.
And it's not just the creepy actors that Scorsese exploits, numerous techniques are put within the film just to keep you off balance and constantly on edge. But the style never gets in the way of the substance, Shutter Island could be the first movie you've ever seen and it would still unsettle you.
Even for those who early on feel they've figured out what's going on in the movie, and the clues are right out in the open, Scorsese isn't relying on a shocking revelation to make the film worthwhile. In fact, the story ends on a disturbingly indefinite note.
This is a film that you really have to have a bit of patience with, but by the end you will be so glad that you have watched it. Recommended.