Forty years into his career, there’s a certain thematic predictability in Martin Scorsese’s films — you can expect a piss-and-vinegar paranoid macho tough guy with insecurity issues, heavy doses of guilt, and a thirst for retribution. In Shutter Island, Scorsese collaborates for the fourth time with Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays his man of violence, US Marshall Teddy Daniels, summoned circa 1954 to a mental institute for the criminally insane off the Boston Harbor. There with his partner (Mark Ruffalo) to locate a missing woman convicted of murdering her three children, Daniels is mindwaffled as to how a prisoner could slip past guards and vanish from an isolated fortress ten miles off the mainland.
Under the supervision of two psychologists — one British shrink with a dark agenda (Ben Kingsley’s Dr. Cawley) and one German higher-up with a certain Max von Sydow creepiness (Max von Sydow’s Dr. Naehring), who refuse to grant him access to patient files — Daniels slowly falls under the mystic spell of the island as he begins to interview the patients. The more answers he gets, the more unsettled and paranoid he becomes. He also begins to experience migraines and suffers flashbacks to his time in World War II and his part in liberating Dachau, of which he suspects Dr. Naehring of being an indirect part. He’s further haunted by nightmares of his wife’s death in an apartment fire (guilt), which he believes one of the inmates at the institution was responsible for (retribution!). Michelle Williams plays the wife, another one of Scorsese’s signature ethereal blondes. While we’re at it, throw in visions slash horror-movie tropes of murdered children and the frozen dead, and go ahead and tick off bloody violence, flashing light bulbs, and plenty of slow tracking shots from Scorsese’s grocery list of signature elements.
Don’t forget Scorsese’s film-school homage nerdiness, either — there are the too obvious nods to Kubrick (The Shining), Hitchcock (North by Northwest, Psycho, Vertigo), Val Lewton, and Samuel Fuller (Shock Corridor), among several others that film scholars will no doubt chew over for hours afterward, swimming in the murky atmosphere of the film, fins constrained by the claustrophobia.
Shutter Island is a noir-ish pulpy b-movie with so many red herrings it’s hard not to bump your head on one or three. The movie might have felt a little overcooked, or a little too cheesy, with DiCaprio, his fedora, and his hardened Boston accent straight out of The Departed, but we trust Scorsese. Trust that he knows what he’s doing, that the confused tone; the middling, lumbering second act; the horror movie clichés; the ponderous, screechy score; the derivative visual nods; and the unnecessary CGI corpses are intentional. It can’t be simple hackery or Hollywood excess, because this is Martin Scorsese, who gave us Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, for God’s sake. Right?
Scorsese recycles those Scorsese themes and his signature style is so nicely crammed into an overlong 138-minute narrative along with a too-convenient hurricane, holocaust atrocities, infanticide, psychosis, medical experiments, and the House of Un-American Activities Committee that Shutter Island must be vintage Scorsese, right? Because Scorsese would never give us throwaway popcorn entertainment, would he?
Perspective means everything. We’ll forgive Scorsese the sins of lesser directors, and chalk it up to the notion that he’s playing with horror movie conventions to pay homage to his own influences, the way Tarantino does with so much success (and smug satisfaction). But that’s a too easy excuse — popcorn entertainment is exactly what Shutter Island is. But it’s solid popcorn entertainment, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone giving too much credit to Scorsese to justify their own enjoyment of the film.
Besides, the themes, the Scorsese signatures, the homages — that’s all academic. Film-school bullshit. Underneath it all is a mind-bending story — excellently adapted by Laeta Kalogrodis from Dennis Lehane’s novel — that plays out in an ambiguously satisfying manner. The plot is purposely layered and almost painfully convoluted, designed to lead you down the Primrose Shyamalan path. But Scorsese is twice the director that Shyamalan is — M Night wants to brain fuck you with a far out twist ending that you’re not supposed to see coming. Scorsese foreshadows his “twist” — he does everything short of telling you exactly how the film will conclude. And that’s when Shutter Island gets interesting — he plants the seeds of doubt, and then — somehow miraculously — he gives you the exact ending you predicted, and it still packs an emotional what-the-fuck wallop.
Some critics, I suspect, will brag about figuring it out halfway through the film — but that’s hardly the point of Shutter Island. It’s the manner in which he gets you there, and in the way that DiCaprio, in his best Scorsese performance, sells it. It’s not the audience that gets hoodwinked — it’s Teddy Daniels who has his moment of Anagnorisis. And thanks to DiCaprio, and a solid turn by Ruffalo, we feel every bit of his shock and recognition, even if comes as no surprise to us. And yet, even knowing what’s coming, we’re left to do the same narrative reevaluating.
Is that vintage Scorsese? Who cares? It’s good film-making, and one hell of an entertaining film.