With $40.2 million in ticket sales, Shutter Island gave Martin Scorsese his strongest opening weekend ever. But film-goers enticed by the previews’ promises of creepy lunatics and chiseled federal agents in fedoras may be surprised to learn that the director, having affirmed his love for operatic violence in earlier films such as Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, turned to a different source altogether this time around: the Holocaust.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays a federal agent investigating a crime on the eponymous island, a state-of-the-art (for the ’50s) mental asylum for society’s most psychotic criminals. Soon, however, he begins to mistake one set of barbed wires for another: with ample use of flashback, we learn that DiCaprio’s character was one of the American soldiers who had liberated Dachau, a traumatic event that haunts him still. This conceit gives Scorsese the freedom to pan across large vistas strewn with frozen bodies, zoom in on tortured faces, and generally infuse his otherwise restrained film with gore and allegory. At some point, the DiCaprio character begins to suspect that the experiments conducted on Shutter Island owe more than a little to the Nazis and their heritage.
Then, however, comes the surprise twist, and gradually shots of Dachau give way to shots of the lovely Michelle Williams, playing DiCaprio’s wife. Finally! A Holocaust film with a soothing ending.