We've come to expect Martin Scorsese to swing for the fences every single time he's at bat, so when a movie comes along like Shutter Island, a pulpy, by-the-numbers thriller, it's easy to feel a slight twinge of disappointment. Here, we're dealing with a lesser work by a modern master, which is to say that Shutter Island is still a crackerjack mystery, executed with great artistic care, but it's also Scorsese working about as close as he ever has to popcorn-munching cineplex fare. It's a hard-boiled and unpretentious outing, but the individual parts of Shutter Island are greater than the whole -- particularly the cinematography by Robert Richardson and outstanding work from a dream team ensemble cast.
Leading that dream team is Leonardo DiCaprio as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, called in to a state-run mental institution on a storm-battered, rocky island on the East Coast, along with his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo). The delusional murderess Rachel Solando has gone missing from her cell, leaving behind no evident clues, and with those in charge of the facility (Ben Kingsley, who needs to work with Scorsese more often, and Max Von Sydow) only forthcoming with information to the officers as it seems to suit them.
Daniels immerses himself in the investigation with unhealthy abandon, perhaps as a way to force back the memories of the recent death of his wife (Michelle Williams) at the hands of an arsonist, or, more troubling, to quiet the voices that constantly remind him of his own violent past, time spent serving out gruesome wartime justice to anonymous Nazi soldiers. Trapped on Shutter Island during a nasty storm, Daniels begins to let on to Chuck that he knows more about the hospital than anything they've learned while investigating Solando. There's a connection with Daniel's wife's killer and the institution -- a connection that Daniels is convinced leads to secret House Un-American Activities Committee-funded neurological experiments taking place in Shutter Island's nigh-impenetrable lighthouse.