Daniels is on the titular island with his cipher of a new partner (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the disappearance of a patient from the island’s mental asylum. Of course things seem fishy from the start- higher-ups (including psychologists Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow) are uncooperative and have ties to shady government operations, orderlies seem nervous, and Teddy’s suffering from headaches and delusions of increasing severity. It’s not the most novel setup, then- it’s clear there will be a shocking reveal by film’s end, and savvy viewers might even be able to figure out which, of several possibilities, the film will go.
If the story’s something of a boilerplate, what’s revelatory is how Scorsese handles the plot as just that- he fills the story to the brim with a mad, idiosyncratic stylization, paying self-aware tribute to noir archetypes and thriller pretense. It's all trench coats, Lucky Strikes and "beats me, Boss," and the film is aware of the space these artifacts exist in. Shutter Island becomes its own camera, filming the visions, delusions, fictions of its inhabitants- in the process capturing, and casting piercing doubt upon, our recent American history. It doesn’t seem like coincidence that, after Inglourious Basterds, it’s the second film in the past year to display the open massacre of unarmed Germans by our erstwhile WW2-era American Heroes. It’s one of Teddy’s memories, as fragile and questionable as any presented in Shutter Island- as fragile, really, as any memory, any recollection. Scorsese identifies our history as one written by animals wounded by unspeakable events, set in motion solely by violence and made bearable, beautiful by the Hollywood Hallucination. It’s such a beautiful hallucination- with one or two scenes as heartrending and perfect as I can think of- that Scorsese, ever the historian, ever the informed auteur, offers with Shutter Island.