Drama set in 1954, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels is investigating the disappearance of a murderess who escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane and is presumed to be hiding nearby.
Everyone seems to get outraged whenever Scorsese decides to make something outside the genre he redefined and crystallized, as though not making another gangster epic is a personal affront. Other directors get to experiment and have fun, get to try different things. True, Edith Wharton was perhaps a stretch too far, but what about his comedies? My two favourite Scorsese films are from his forgotten years, King Of Comedy and After Hours. Perhaps they’re not comedies in the Judd Apatow vein, but nonetheless they are brilliantly dark and funny in a more or less horrible way. But they’re overlooked, kind of hushed up and not spoken of, like a couple of illegitimate kids in the royal family.
With Shutter Island Scorsese is taking a little holiday into film history, indulging his cinematic knowledge and passions to make an homage to 1950s late-noir thrillers and drive-in horror films so playful and skilled that Tarantino perhaps ought to be worrying about his own little slice of generic homage pie. It’s Scorsese at his inventive best, a film aficionado’s feast. All the tropes of the 50s films are here, a virtual film festival of science gone wrong, paranoia, government distrust, xenophobic red-baiting and Teutophobia, and B-movie gothic.
Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, baggy-eyed and physically thicker than we’re used to) comes out of the fog, on board a ship, seasick from the rear projection behind him. He is a Federal Marshal, which makes him tough, and this is 1954, which makes him tougher still. The kind of trenchcoat-wearing, ‘just the facts, ma’am,’ he-man G-man, not a big smiler, who can crack the toughest case like a knuckle. With him is his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). They are on their way to a remote rocky island, home of Ashecliffe, the most notorious and dangerous lock-down facility for the criminally insane, like, ever. An inmate has vanished without a trace. It’s the Marshals’ job to get to the bottom of it.
The familiar and ominous narrative elements are set up like Lego bricks before the boat even docks: the wise old salt piloting the boat saying out of the side of his mouth, ‘there’s a storm a-coming’; the fact that there is only one way on—and one way off—the island; the jagged rocks and violent surf; the low angles and high angles of the camera; the menacing fortress on the hill, Ward C, looming over the entire compound, where all the most dangerous criminals are kept…but for what nefarious purpose? All is accompanied by an outrageously histrionic score with its tubas and timpani, too loud, giving too much away, like lightning cracking outside of window whenever someone says something revelatory (which is also there). But Scorsese is recreating a psychological thriller from a bygone time: it would be a surprise if there were surprises. We know something evil this way comes, why insult us pretending otherwise?
Once on the island, Teddy and Chuck encounter a recalcitrant and villainous psychiatrist with mysterious top-lighting wherever he goes, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), who seems evil and benevolent at the same time and has new ideas about how the diseased brain ought to be treated. They also find, in short order, an ex-Nazi death camp doctor, Herr Naehring (Max Von Sydow, with effortless menace that dominates the frame) smoking cigars and drinking fine whiskey, HUAC-sponsored mind experiments, and sanctuary from an anthropomorphic storm in…what else?…a crypt. Soon they learn that the last boat has left for the mainland and they’re trapped, and that the phone lines are also down, like in Island of Terror, the film with the tentacled tortoise shells that sucked the bones out of people. They didn’t have phones either.
And Teddy has his own demons. He is haunted by the murder of his wife (Michelle Williams) and by the fact that her killer may be on the island. He is also plagued by the severe trauma of witnessing ‘what humans were capable of’ during the recent war when he helped liberate Dachau. Then there’s the familiar selective stupidity of the flawed late-noir hero. He can single-handedly subvert an entire covert government operation but yet it doesn’t give him the briefest pause when an obviously sinister doctor with an evangelical belief in psychopharmacology says, ‘here, take these pills.’
Things get more slippery as Teddy delves deeper into the island’s horror movie stalwarts, like going into the Dantean inferno or the Freudian subconscious, and soon is in a realm of dungeons and nightmares. Ward C is a stunning combination of an Escher drawing and Hogarth’s series on Bedlam, with mazes of cages and troll-like lunatics skittering around in the shadows. But even Ward C is not the nadir of Shutter Island. There is someplace worse.
Teddy falls into a Funhouse of delusions; dreams, fantasies, memories, charades all careen and blend. Who is guilty, who is your friend—indeed, who you even are— becomes a tumult. Teddy must not only solve the mystery—and heal his past—but he must also discover what the true mystery is.
Ultimately with any corkscrew of a plot, with its labyrinth of revelations, MacGuffins, red herrings, deceptions, and doppelgangers, it’s not going to bear up to close scrutiny. Why are characters suddenly revealing things, unasked, except that it’s the third act and we need to go home now? The satisfaction must come from the unravelling.
Shutter Island is a thrilling exercise. But is Scorsese taking the tropes of the 1950s film too far? Is he too self-aware, is he straddling the itchy line between homage and parody? He pans the camera abruptly and awkwardly in some scenes, mimicking the clunky work of B-movie cameraman; when Teddy announces that his wife’s murderer has a scar running from his eyebrow to his chin and has eyes that are different colors it’s more—at this late day—Mike Meyers than James M. Cain; he uses blatant rear-projection and pistol-whips us with the score. But I think the technical achievements are the film’s great accomplishment. This is a faithful, detailed movie not set in 1954, but of 1954. Scorsese is fully flexing his cinephilic chops. When he cuts gratuitously to the shower-head shot from Psycho how can anyone not relish in Scorsese having fun?