Shutter Island (2010)

Director: Martin Scorsese

By Roderick Heath

Author Dennis Lehane’s specimens of ethically, physically, and psychologically assailed masculinity have many similarities to those troubled men who have littered the cinema of Martin Scorsese. Lehane’s byzantine 2004 psycho-thriller Shutter Island, however, didn’t seem like the kind of material that would immediately appeal to the great American director because it was a tribute to genres that Scorsese has rarely taken an interest in. Other Lehane works, like Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, already well-filmed, would seem more natural for the director of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, and the novel’s story revolves around the kind of trick narrative Scorsese has mostly disdained. Scorsese’s previous efforts at playing the generic entertainer, like 1991’s cheesy shocker remake of Cape Fear, and 2006’s disjointed, oddly bland thriller The Departed had me convinced that Scorsese wasn’t very good at subordinating his familiar artistic volatility to the needs of commercial cinema without losing his bearings.

Scorsese’s reasons for filming Shutter Island become plainer in the viewing, however, as he and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis stick scrupulously close to their source, which tells the story of U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), who comes to the titular island in Boston Harbour by ferry along with hastily provided new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). The island is the location of Ashecliffe Hospital, a repository for the criminally insane, where an inmate named Rachel Solando (the always-wonderful Emily Mortimer) has supposedly escaped from her cell. The marshals are there to lead the manhunt for her. They encounter the smooth head psychiatrist Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), his Germanic offsider Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sydow), the efficient deputy warden McPherson (John Carroll Lynch), and the intimidating warden (Ted Levine) who seems only slightly saner than his patients. Soon, Teddy and Chuck discover the utter improbability of Rachel’s escape given the circumstances.

Deeper levels to Teddy and his presence on the island begin to manifest: Teddy, a former soldier who had helped liberate Dachau, lost his wife Dolores Chanal (Michelle Williams) in an apartment fire two years earlier. He tells Chuck that the firebug who killed her, Andrew Laeddis (Elias Koteas), is one of the inmates and that he thinks Cawley and Naehring are adapting Nazi medical experiments under the aegis of HUAC and using the patients as guinea pigs. Teddy seems under tremendous psychic pressure as he begins to experience bizarre hallucinations of Dolores and grotesque dreams in which she and Rachel become interchangeable and Teddy becomes accomplice to Rachel’s supposed murders of her three children. Pictures of Rachel remind him of inmates at Dachau, and, indeed, the whole institution reminds him of that locale and the hideous violence he witnessed and participated in there. Rachel is found, but Chuck abruptly disappears, and Teddy encounters a woman living in a cave claiming to be the real Rachel Solando (Patricia Clarkson), a psychiatrist working at the hospital forced into hiding when she refused to collaborate. She warns Teddy that he’s already falling victim to psychosis-inducing drugging. Teddy determines to find Chuck, believing he’s being held in an old lighthouse where the nastiest experiments seem to take place.

If Scorsese’s camera dynamics are cooling noticeably, the emotional temperament of his films isn’t: indeed, Shutter Island is most sustainedly hysterical work in years, essayed with some thoroughly confident cinema. His imagery is closest in spirit to the hallucinogenic noir that punctuated his badly underrated near-masterpiece Bringing Out The Dead (1999), and this film plays as something of an evil twin to that work: both works center on conscientious, dutiful men suffering ugly demons and fantastical dreamscapes, haunted by women they feel guilty for not being able to save, and engaging in soul-tearing reckonings with their innermost natures and their place in the world. Like Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, Teddy’s delusions of knighthood conceal illness and incapacity to cope with the world. Where those films were, however, at least nominally works of realistic drama, Shutter Island is a thoroughgoing stylised nightmare, as Teddy is forced closer and closer toward his own heart of darkness, symbolised by the lighthouse, and into a reckoning with the hideous truth behind his presence on the island and his whole past: he is Laeddis, it was his own wife who murdered their children before he killed her in distraught revenge. He’s been through a desperate attempt by the doctors and staff using role-playing to reach him in his delusional state.

Scorsese opens the film with an eerie long shot of the island that evokes the approach to the Isle of the Dead in Mark Robson’s 1945 film, and sporting blasts of deeply reverberating, menacing music announcing immediately that something truly nasty awaits on Shutter Island. And yet, in a curious fashion, nothing truly horrific happens in the course of the film’s present-tense narrative: the island is actually a hide-away for guilt and tragedy lurking in the past. The entire story is set up to penetrate that hideaway, that ultimate retreat, locked behind metaphorical shutters. Simultaneously, Lehane’s novel used the tropes of trashier pop culture to illustrate a period version of psychosis, whilst erecting a tale about the collapse of traditional masculinity in the Age of Anxiety, humiliated before the face of war and holocaust and the impenetrable ambiguities of the unbalanced mind. Scorsese goes to town recreating those tropes, as he turns Lehane’s template into a vivid, bristling tribute to Val Lewton, Michael Powell, Orson Welles, Samuel Fuller, and many other filmmakers.

Scorsese’s a more ingenious director than Lehane is a prose stylist, and he illustrates Lehane’s clever scenario with thunderous gothic chic. Some have characterised the film as a return to Scorsese’s one-time flirtation with the Roger Corman school of filmmaking, and there’s a dash of truth to this, apparent in the zest with which Scorsese offers up gnarled graveyards, hordes of rats, scar-faced villains, mysterious caves, and eerie hospital wards. But Scorsese was only briefly a member of that school, making Shutter Island more like the Corman film he never got to make. There are more levels to this, however: as a novel and as a film, Shutter Island plays a taut and revealing game with psychological credulity and a well-constructed thriller narrative that replicates the intricacies of paranoid psychoses. The twist ending of the work seems to hit many people with particularly disorientating force because it actively subverts the noir tradition, as so many of the juicy elements prove manifestations of a ruined, craven mind.

In fact, the film is closest in effect and design to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), of which Scorsese is well aware (and also Robert Bloch’s wacko 1962 reimagining of that film). Particularly in the sequence in which Teddy ventures into Ward C, the place for the most dangerous inmates within a Civil War-era fort, Scorsese conjures a pure space of expressionist dread—dank, dark, and labyrinthine—in which Teddy encounters both physical and psychological enemies in the persons of escaped inmates and George Noyce (a grossly convincing Jackie Earle Haley), Teddy’s schizoid source for the horrors of Ashcliffe. Ward C evokes the twisted interiors of Lewton’s Bedlam (1946)—Scorsese even reproduces one fright from that film exactly—and the bowels of the Courts in Welles’ The Trial (1963) with spiraling stairwells and grilled shadows.

Likewise, Teddy’s perfervid dream sequences are little masterpieces of style from Scorsese, offering in suddenly lush colours that contrast the blues and greys of the hospital and island with Teddy’s suppressed Technicolor romanticism: visions of Dolores as a bleeding, crumbling illusion and Mortimer’s Rachel perversely pretty in appealing to Teddy for help whilst drenched in blood like a Hammer horror vampire girl. This could all be the closest Scorsese will ever come to making a Tarantino film, but he keeps the narrative rocking along with grace, and the conscious riffing on generic style has a uniquely clever point. That point is found particularly in Ruffalo’s sly performance as a psychiatrist playing a role, his glued-on Dragnet cadences perfect for a man whose idea of policing comes from the television. And the patterns of such shows are reenacted with mordant humour, such as when fake Teddy interviews fake Rachel who’s, warning her about a “known Communist subversive.” Shutter Island encapsulates far more about the tortured ’50s psyche than any number of Revolutionary Roads, as it builds with relentless force to the ultimate moment of familial disintegration as Teddy/Andrew revisits his real trauma.

Not all of the tricks and explanations in Lehane’s eventual resolution are entirely convincing, and Scorsese hardly wastes much time trying to make them so. But he does expend a great deal of subtly employed effort to construct the film so that it adds up to a convincing wholeness, with offhand details—Chuck’s fumbling with his prop gun, Teddy’s obviously delusional ranting—to avoid making another Fight Club. This was my advantage in being familiar with the story in simply being able to watch some consummate conditioning by a master storyteller. It’s amusing to note how much Koteas as the nonexistent Laeddis resembles De Niro as Travis Bickle with his wicked-pixie grin, as if Scorsese is doing a little of his own demon-exorcism in the course of wholeheartedly embracing a portrayal of a broken psyche. An interesting addition to the conclusion, where Teddy/Andrew faces losing his identity to a lobotomy, tweaks Lehane’s dark conclusion ever so slightly, as Di Caprio’s last line suggests that, rather than having merely reverted to madness, he’d choose another way to forget over remembering.

The cast of Shutter Island is amazing, and they uniformly rise to the occasion. I’m starting to miss the wry, light-touch DiCaprio of Titanic and Catch Me If You Can a little, and it’s possible that Teddy really ought to have been played by an actor with the kind of igneous quality invoked by Charles MacGraw or Robert Mitchum. But then again, the book’s Teddy is defined by his difficulties in living up to the he-man image; either way, Di Caprio does bloody well by the difficult part, particularly in evoking the flurries of nearly psychotic rage that punctuate his interactions with other characters. And at 80 years old, Von Sydow still wraps scenes around his little finger. If the whole enterprise is certainly not Scorsese at his greatest, it is by far the most coherent and purposeful of his efforts to embrace the mainstream and pay tribute to movies of yore. l

  • bill r. spoke:
    28th/02/2010 to 4:43 pm

    Great defense of a strangely divisive, but I believe great, film, Rod. And you say that Koteas reminded you of DeNiro as Bickle, but I thought he was practically the spitting image of DeNiro as the creature from Branagh’s misbegotten FRANKENSTEIN. I almost can’t believe that was a coincidence, except that I can’t see what the point of doing it on purpose would be. Still, the resemblance is more than striking.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/02/2010 to 5:29 pm

    This sounds like a lot of fun, a lot like Identity, which I quite enjoyed. But is the time for twist endings fading?

  • Rod spoke:
    1st/03/2010 to 12:01 am

    Defense, Bill? I don’t think this film even remotely has to apologise for itself. It’s interesting that critics are wobbly where audiences are voting with their feet on this one and for once the audiences are right. I wonder if a lot of the critical negativity aimed at the film is more about revenge for how much “The Departed” was over-regarded than about “Shutter Island” itself.

    Yeah, now you mention it, he does look like De Niro’s “Frankenstein”. Either way, he looks like De Niro. What’s going on there, you think?

    Mare: It’s not really very similar to “Identity” except in the basic theme of an illusion-racked psych-patient, although I suppose one could say they both take an overtly psychological riff on pop culture cliches (slasher movies in the first case, conspiracy theory yarsn in the second). But “Identity” wasn’t really a film you could take too seriously whereas “Shutter Island” works on multiple levels.

    Otherwise, probably, yes, the time for “twist” endings is probably retreating rapidly.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    1st/03/2010 to 2:53 am

    All hail Roderick Heath!

    Finally, one of the blogosphere’s great writers comes down on the side of this fabulously-entertaining film that uses weather superbly to externalize it’s action. And scenes in the lighthouse, in a cave, in a cemetery burial vault, in a cafeteria and in a study are wonderfully acted and riveting. I wasn’t on to the ending (since I never read the book) and found it’s deceit delectable. I loved the Dachau concentration flashback structure too. All in all, one of Scorsese’s best efforts of the last 15 years or so.

    And Marilyn–this is a spectacular make-over here!! Looks great!!

  • Rod spoke:
    1st/03/2010 to 4:29 am

    Thanks for your effusive praise, Sam. It’s interesting that you found the twist, as you say, delectable, because whilst when I first read it in the novel, I had my doubts about it as I do with all twist endings, I had to admit that it was entirely sensible and well-constructed. And the filming of it here is keen, which goes to show not all twist endings are created equal. And whilst Scorsese has made several films in the part fifteen years I consider great, I won’t argue that it’s one of his most consummately achieved recent works.

  • Tony Williams spoke:
    14th/03/2010 to 3:01 pm

    Good detailed review. Yes, I though DeNiro was doing a cameo until I read the credits.

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