The discordant assembly of images in Shutter Island are baroque and distressing. At first sight you believe that the film will take place entirely on an island that lodges the criminally insane, circa 1954. What gradually creeps in are flashbacks of American G.I.’s liberating Jews from a Nazi concentration camp, as well as our hero’s nightmares of his former wife cremating to ashes before his eyes. While in the present, the weather is constantly harsh and unforgiving, lending to cracking and shattering of walls and windows.
Before the first images of the film even roll, movie lovers will be instantly turned on by the use of the same György Ligeti music that was used in “The Shining.” Director Martin Scorsese, with his first dramatic feature since his Oscar-winning “The Departed” (2006), prioritizes foremost in creating an ominous and foreboding atmosphere. He lets us know immediately, through visual and aural suggestion, that the island will be a trap where violence and hysteria will be difficult if not impossible for his protagonist to escape from.
This is the Scorsese that I’ve been wanting to see since “Cape Fear” (1991), the Scorsese that will put a hypnotic spin on a big, fat American genre piece – film noir and psychodramatic horror – something that he could inject with his trademark skill and blustery. Scorsese continues to raise his game in technical perfection with his inimitable use of canted angles and severe lighting. His visuals are gestating with silhouette and shadow patterns that alter his audience’s perceptions – we are at the mercy of what we think is real and what is imagined, and also perplexed by what point of view the film is adopting. Forget James Cameron. Scorsese is arguably the Film Master of the World.
In preparation for this film, Scorsese said that he was inspired by the silent classic “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1919) and the asylum melodrama “Shock Corridor” (1963). The former is a visually startling piece of German expressionism although dramatically limp by today’s standards, and Scorsese pretty much defuncts the value of the latter. What’s important here is that Scorsese draws from film history – the German expressionism of the 1920’s and the film noirs of the 1940’s primarily – and uses those techniques to make… a very frightening, bone-chilling thriller.
I will drop my explanation of Scorsese for a moment to talk about the actors and characters. Leonardo DiCaprio (last seen in “Revolutionary Road”) stars as the Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels who arrives at the island to investigate the disappearances of a schizophrenic murderess (Emily Mortimer, “Match Point,” provides the mug shots of the crazed woman). Teddy is accompanied by fellow marshal Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo, “Zodiac”) whose initial motivation appears to solely adhere to professional duty until perhaps, or perhaps not, be prompted to participate in conspiracies.
Teddy definitely has a number of agendas, including possible revenge on another inmate who may have been responsible for setting the fire that his wife died in years ago. Michelle Williams (“Wendy and Lucy”) plays Teddy’s dead wife, and her ghostly or dreamlike appearances loom steadily in his memory. Ben Kingsley (“House of Sand and Fog”) plays the seemingly benign chief doctor, Max von Sydow (“Minority Report”) plays an insidious-looking doctor who looks like a WWII descendent, and Ted Levine (Buffalo Bill of “The Silence of the Lambs”) plays the cruel warden whose verbal expressions seem to endlessly slant on sadism. Patricia Clarkson (“Vicky Christina Barcelona”) and Jackie Earle Haley (“Little Children”) are also featured in key roles in which the less said about them the better.
“Shutter Island” puts you in the thrall of gripping suspense, especially when you learn that missing patients might be guinea pigs in extreme experiments involving psychosurgery. Teddy, a probing detective who learns things that could be damaging to his livelihood, is reduced into a Kafka-esque rat in a maze. He gets various portentous messages “to run.”
Yet the film prospers less on traditional plot than it does on Scorsese creating a state of mind. Scorsese, the world master as he is, has self-criticized himself in interviews over the years that he is fundamentally a “narrative filmmaker.” This time he has created a mood piece, much like Stanley Kubrick did with “The Shining” or “Eyes Wide Shut” crossed with the claustrophobic dread of F.W. Murnau, the 1920’s pioneer of German expressionistic shadows and fog weirdness. Sample inspiration: While Kubrick created a scene of blood flooding from an elevator, Scorsese creates a nerve-rattling scene of rats scurrying from an island cove.
It hardly matters if you know these classic films or not. It matters thatScorsese knows what he is doing. He draws on German expressionism techniques to make it look better than it has ever looked before (at least with updating that style for a modern film). Just like Quentin Tarantino draws from classic films and manages to outdo the original source, Scorsese is doing the same but always with the sake of servicing the story.
Reality becomes fractured in this film, and we are left to question the sanity of the entire hospital staff and left to question the degrees of paranoia of our protagonist. As well as to if and why the hallucinations are being amplified (are they being triggered by unbeknownst inoculation of psychotropic drugs?). By the end, we are left questioning the schematics of the plot perhaps in justifiable terms, but if you are truly captivated then you will up to its last minutes questioning the malicious motivations of mid-20thcentury psychology and science. As well as guessing up to its last minute of whose projection of truth is reliable and which slate of characters are the true crazies.
The only thing I can’t be kind about is the penultimate final shot of the movie. It’s a panning shot that underlines a symbolic object that no longer holds any weight after its true significance has already been revealed. Scorsese is also best when he is at his most merciless, and I feel he gets a tad too sympathetic with the wrong character. The climactic construction puts you through a bait-and-switch that makes you identify with its central characters in a new way. This new sympathetic clutch is treacle.
But quibbles. “Shutter Island” is mesmerizing for the most part. If you come out of it disappointed, I’ll gladly point you in the direction of “Big Momma’s House 3” when it comes around, or something else that proudly aspires to be meaningless fodder and nothing more. For true believers, count on “Shutter Island” on being the most adventurous, head-spinning movie treat that you will see for the next several months ahead of you, and then some.
138 Minutes. Rated R.
MYSTERY / PSYCHODRAMA / LATE NIGHT THRILLS
Film Cousins: “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1919, Germany); “Shock Corridor” (1963); “The Shining” (1980); “Cape Fear” (1991).