2010 // USA // Martin Scorsese // February 21, 2010 // Theatrical Print (St. Louis Cinemas Moolah Theater)
B - Eternally the Catholic kid from the Garment District, Martin Scorsese has long used his narrative features to explore the relationship between violence and guilt. Granted, the stultifying, deforming influence of societies on the individual frequently figures prominently into his films, with the societies in question ranging from blinkered, hierarchical subcultures to the vast, alienating melting pot of over-stimulated contemporary America. Even Scorsese's most unambitious feature in the past two decades, his 1991 remake of Cape Fear, took pains to develop the original film's anemic foundations into a more substantive commentary on the absurdities of the criminal justice system and the allure of masculine mythology. However, settings only seem to hold the director's attention inasmuch as they relate to searingly personal concerns; at the center of most Scorsese films is a battered man squeezed between others' rules and his own sins. Given these tendencies, I suppose I should have expected that Shutter Island would prove to be something more elaborate and bruised than the "mere" creepshow thriller that is being presented in the film's marketing. Not that there's anything wrong with a creepshow thriller done exceptionally well (q.v., Drag Me to Hell), but Scorsese, despite his profile, isn't the film-maker that leaps to mind when one hears the phrase "Master of Horror." Shutter Island feels for all the world like a florid imitation of a Wes Craven delve, and it's only in the final twenty minutes that the curtain is pulled back to reveal that Scorsese tell, the strand of private Christian torment that stretches all the way back to Mean Streets.
The film opens on a ferry looming out of the fog of Boston Harbor in 1954. Aboard is Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio in his fourth consecutive collaboration with Scorsese), a U.S. Marshal with an anxious manner and a heedless inclination for provoking anyone that rubs him the wrong way. Teddy is bound for Shutter Island, home of Ashecliffe Hospital, a federally-funded institution for the criminally insane. He and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) have been tasked to investigate the seemingly impossible escape of a female patient (Emily Mortimer), incarcerated for drowning her own children. The titular island is a misty purgatory straight out of a Val Lewton film, complete with a coastline of jagged black rock, a lonely lighthouse, and a decrepit graveyard. Naturally, a violent thunderstorm rolls in just as the marshals arrive, and then quickly escalates to a hurricane. Teddy intuits from the outset that something is rotten at Ashecliffe, and he's determined to get to the bottom of it. As with any atmospheric tale of horror worth its salt, the sensation of wrongness develops not from one thing but lots of little things: the contradictions in the tale of the murderess' escape; the guards who seem a bit too menacing and the patients who seem to be trying to warn the marshals; and the German Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), who gives Teddy (a WWII vertran who helped liberate Dachau) a case of the heebie-jeebies.
The genial director of the hospital (Ben Kingsley) explains that psychiatry is poised at a turning point, as lobotomies are being supplanted by pharmacology and psychoanalysis for even habitually violent patients, with the latter tactics favored by Ashecliffe and its staff. Then why do parts of the hospital complex look more like a medieval dungeon or industrial hellhole than a place of healing? The efficacy of Teddy's investigation isn't helped by a sudden bout of crippling migraines, or the intrusion of vivid memories: slaughtered children in the death camps, a Nazi commandant dying at his feet, and most especially bittersweet visions of his wife (Michelle Williams), who years ago perished in a fire at their apartment building. The lines between reality and delusion start to blur in short order, and eventually we reach a point where the film's framework snaps decisively and poor Teddy is forced to face what we have long suspected: he is well and truly fucked. Needless to say, there is much more going on in Shutter Island's puzzle-box plot than is initially apparent, although it holds onto its revelations until the bitter end, at which point almost everything settles into place (with a little jostling).
If you're thinking that all of this sounds both a little pedestrian in general, and a little odd coming from Scorsese in particular, well, then you'd be right. Plenty of directors have ventured outside their generic comfort zones with fine, even spectacular, results, but Scorsese is unable to discover the precise tone for a tale of psychological horror. The director's approach here is best described as "shamelessly unrelenting," a gambit that at times pays spine-tingling dividends, but at others just comes off as domineering. On the positive side, the setting is marvelously evocative, particular the repeated imagery of black evergreens and sea spray against slate skies. It isn't just forlorn, it's Movie Forlorn, and making this sort of thing look gorgeous is all in a day's work for cinematographer Robert Richardson, who has lensed some of the most visually arresting features from Scorsese, Oliver Stone, and Errol Morris. Likewise for production designer Dante Ferretti, whose attention to detail and penchant for visual overstatement function spectacularly well here, from the painfully cheerful flower beds to the abyssal prison cells to the ludicrously baroque staff lounge, where Mahler plays on a phonograph and glasses of brandy glint in the golden light.
There's a bit of metatextual canniness at work in the casting, for added creepiness. Who wouldn't be freaked out at an asylum staffed by Kingsley, Von Sydow, John Carroll "Zodiac" Lynch, and Ted "Buffalo Bill" Levine? (Levine, who has just one significant scene, claim the film's best line: "If I bit into your eye right now, do you think you'd be able to stop me before I blinded you?" Remember, he's the warden.) Elsewhere, however, Shutter Island's eagerness to convey its menace just comes off as lumbering, most conspicuously in the orchestral strings that pound and pound and POUND. This doggedness becomes gaudy by the end of the first act, when an unfortunate reality sets in: the film just isn't especially scary. It's unquestionably moody, and it conveys the perversely pleasurable sense of disorientation that the best potboilers strive for. However, the stretches of unease and moments of fright that should be the meat-and-potatoes of a horror film are decidedly limp and unremarkable here. Scorsese can do tension masterfully when he wishes to, especially violent tension. Watch Tommy DeVito's rage slowly boil over in Goodfellas, or Bill Cutting as he makes Amsterdam twist on the tip of a meat cleaver in Gangs of New York. In Shutter Island, however, Scorsese privileges ornate atmospherics and the presentation of the convoluted plot over the emotional potency of any given scene. Too often, the film feels like a parlor trick rather than a story. The concluding twist, which throws everything that has come before it into a fresh light, only heightens this sense that we have been pranked.
Whether one regards the prank as clever, or the reveal as gratifying, may be a matter of taste. Happily, Shutter Island's late-game U-turn also enriches and contextualizes the film a whole, nestling it alongside the other works of Scorsese's oeuvre that starkly address evil and penance. The grittiness that has become synonymous with the director's narrative features has become so hopelessly (and erroneously) conflated with realism, that it can come as a shock when Scorsese demonstrates that he has always been comfortable gazing through a distorted lens. Films like Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, and Bringing Out the Dead flirt with the hyperreal character of modern life, embracing their narrators' unreliability and their habit of perceiving the world through personal anguish. Although Scorsese's command of generic essentials is uncharacteristically ungainly in Shutter Island, the film dovetails strikingly with the thematic concerns that have roiled for four decades in his work. Moreover, it provokes the most coveted reaction among twisty thrillers: the need to see it again.