Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) faces murder and more in Martin Scorsese's film Shutter Island. ((Paramount Pictures))

Shutter Island begins with signs of foreboding and doom. Two newly partnered U.S. marshals, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), ferry across Boston Harbour's choppy waters while storm clouds loom overhead. Decked out in the sort of gumshoe trench coats and fedoras you'd see in 1950s film noirs, the two men head toward the titular island, home to the Ashecliffe Asylum, where they've been tasked with finding a murderess-inmate who has disappeared into thin air.

Scorsese is indulging in the B-movie love that prompted his remake of Cape Fear. This time, however, his foray into genre filmmaking yields breathtaking results.

Once they arrive on the craggy-rocked shore, Daniels and Aule are stripped of their firearms and introduced to Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), the head physician who will aid them in their investigation. From the get-go, things don't add up. Everybody from Cawley to the starchy nurses to the skittish inmates seems to know more than they're letting on. The futile investigation grows murkier when Daniels is beset by blinding migraines and vivid flashbacks of his dead wife (Michelle Williams) and his traumatic experiences as a soldier in the Second World War. 

Viewers might feel an extra twinge of anxiety knowing that Shutter Island is arriving in theatres months after its original release date (fall 2009) — never a good sign. They needn't worry. Working from a script based on Dennis Lehane's 2003 page-turner, Martin Scorsese is clearly indulging in the B-movie love that prompted his over-the-top remake of Cape Fear. This time, his foray into genre filmmaking yields some breathtaking results.

This is pulpy material, and proudly so. Shutter Island is the kind of movie in which a hurricane of biblical proportions — accompanied by blasting horns on the film's off-kilter, top-notch soundtrack — is the catalyst that sets Daniels and Aule loose to explore the creepiest corners of the Ashecliffe grounds. Once they're inside the dank basements of Ward C, a patient known as Noyce (a bone-chilling Jackie Earle Haley) rants about sinister goings-on at the hospital while light bulbs sizzle and hiss in the background.

By the time a mysterious woman (Patricia Clarkson) delivers a scorching speech about mind experiments, psychedelic drugs, the House Un-American Activities Committee, even lobotomies, it becomes clear that Shutter Island is steeped in the kind of paranoia we saw in Cold War-era movies. Nothing on the island is what it appears to be — not even Daniels, a tarnished hero who has some demons and ulterior motives of his own.


U.S. marshals Daniels (DiCaprio, left) and Aule (Mark Ruffalo) meet the asylum's Dr. Cawley in Shutter Island (Ben Kingsley). ((Paramount Pictures))

Throughout the film, Scorsese conjures all kinds of ghosts from cinema history – the fearful citizens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the raving nutcases in Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor (1963), the spiral staircase in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) and the hysterical colour palette of Vincent Minnelli's The Cobweb (1955).

Viewers don't need to notice these references to enjoy Shutter Island. Scorsese is a brilliant stylist in his own right, and some of his images in this film are haunting and indelible. I'm still savouring the violent fuchsia and chartreuse flowers on Michelle Williams's dress, the unusual choice to bathe this noirish movie in milky white light and the gentle shots of snow and jet-black ash that rain down on Daniels in his nightmares.

As his flashbacks intensify, Daniels grows increasingly uncertain about who he can trust, and DiCaprio has to keep the audience guessing right along with him. Though I've never been completely sold on his previous performances for Scorsese (his boyish face undermined him in both Gangs of New York and The Aviator), DiCaprio does great work here, fully convincing as an adult struggling to fight off memories of his tortured past. Take one look at his raw reaction shots when he's confronted with the sight of his dead wife, and you'll remember why people were hailing him as a prodigy in his child performances.

Though DiCaprio carries us through Shutter Island's lengthy running time and complicated plot turns, in the end, it's Scorsese who's pulling the strings. He's been at this long enough to know exactly when to ratchet up the suspense, and he does so until he delivers a knockout conclusion that would make Jake LaMotta proud.

Shutter Island ends with a twist, but the biggest surprise is Scorsese's thoughtful take on the material. Don't be misled by the potboiler plot -- the film's piercingly beautiful final scenes make it clear that the celebrated director's passion for filmmaking is as intense as ever.

Shutter Island opens Feb. 19.

Lee Ferguson writes about the arts for CBC News.