Sometimes it feels like film is a young man’s art. So many filmmakers lose the spark as they get older, unable to capture the energy and spirit of their younger works, stuck going through the motions and creating pantomime versions of movies. It’s hard to see your favorites getting old and coming to that place where they can no longer control the elements of cinema with effortless grace, and it’s easy to turn a blind eye and pretend that the latest work contains at least the echoes of the magic that made us fall in love with them in the first place.
Martin Scorsese is not one of those directors.
Scorsese’s latest film, an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s thriller Shutter Island, is the work of a master. It’s not a great Scorsese work – the script hobbles him – but it’s the work of a master at his height. This is Scorsese flexing his muscles and cracking his knuckles and making a movie that’s intense and thrilling and engrossing and beautiful and dense and, in the end, sadly stupid. But it’s still 95% of a truly great film, and even that other 5% is made with rock steady sureness.
The stupidity that plagues Shutter Island comes at the end; I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it’s a concept that requires an awful huge amount of suspension of disbelief, but to Scorsese’s credit (and to the credit of screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis), Shutter Island doesn’t play the ending like a big mind-blowing twist. The movie all but tells you the ‘twist’ in the opening scenes, and Scorsese plays the ending out as a catharsis rather than as a gut punch. Which is smart, as that ending could never reasonably be a gut punch.
Laying out the pieces of the ending all throughout the film, Scorsese weaves a tapestry of psychological dread and horror. The film begins as a standard police procedural – two US Marshalls are called to Shutter Island, an inaccessible rock in the middle of Boston Harbor, which houses Ashcliffe, am asylum for the criminally insane. One of the patients/prisoners has escaped from the escape-proof island and Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) find that things at Ashcliffe are strange and menacing and that the staff and patients seem to be harboring a big secret. But running along all of this is a level of disorienting surreality; nothing on Shutter Island feels quite right, and Teddy keeps flashing back to tragic events in his life – his presence as a soldier at the liberation of Dachau and the death of his wife in an arsonist’s blaze.
You’ve probably figured out the twist by now, just from that basic spoiler-free description and the trailer, but fuck it. I knew the twist walking in and it just deepened the film for me; Shutter Island’s deadly cliffs and Ashcliffe’s twisted corridors are the outward manifestations of Teddy’s own internal turmoil, and the film is a psychological, existential thriller that chills to the bone with its questions about living with guilt and horror. Scorsese never loses an opportunity to fill his frame with something that unsettles, and a sequence in Ashcliffe’s Civil War era building – reserved for the most violent offenders – is a scene not from a thriller but from a balls-out horror movie. Scorsese creates a thick atmosphere in those stone hallways and along rusty metal catwalks, conjuring up nightmare feelings. That’s the tone the film keeps coming back to – a strange, dreamlike feeling where something terrible always lies just around the corner.
DiCaprio feels tattered as Teddy Daniels. He’s got this unexplained cut on his forehead at the beginning of the movie, and that small detail tells you so much about the character. Teddy’s described more than once as a ‘man of violence’ (including one time by Ted Levine in a scene so surreal as to approach being psychedelic), and DiCaprio mostly pulls that off. He’s still the weedy guy who can’t quite seem to get a beard going, but he’s got something in his eyes that makes him believable – you don’t think that Teddy wins fights by being the strongest or the meanest but by being the guy who absorbs the most punishment, who keeps getting up every time he gets knocked down. And that’s what the character does in the film as the investigation becomes sidetracked into a possible government conspiracy, as a massive hurricane batters the island and as a crippling migraine begins to fray his faculties.
There are other actors around DiCaprio, but this is surely his show. They’re all good; Ben Kingsley is creepy in a way that’s hard to pinpoint at first as one of Ashcliffe’s administrators, while Max von Sydow is positively Satanic as another. Jackie Earle Haley appears briefly in a scene filled with dream logic impact where he acts with a scary ferocity. Emily Mortimer is skin-crawling as a woman with a serious delusion that covers up her horrible crime, while Michelle Williams has an ethereal oddness as a hallucinatory version of Teddy’s dead wife. Sadly Mark Ruffalo ends up feeling a little shortchanged, playing faithful sidekick to DiCaprio throughout the film, but even in a role that gives him little to do, Ruffalo is endlessly watchable.
If Scorsese and DiCaprio are integral parts in making the film overcome its source material, the third man here must be cinematographer Robert Richardson. Shutter Island is nothing short of beautiful, with moody lighting that deepens the sense of dread Scorsese is conjuring. There are some flat out wonderful shots in the film – not much in the way of showstoppers, but all simply great moments of cinema. The introduction to Ashcliffe, for instance, is a visually arresting and iconic moment, immediately establishing the asylum as a character in the story. Shutter Island was once scheduled to be released during Oscar season, and while I don’t think much else in the film cries out ‘awards bait,’ Richardson’s cinematography is simply statue worthy.
The more I think about Shutter Island the more I like it. A second viewing is demanded, as the film is filled with small clues and moments of understated symbolism that reveal themselves once the crux of the twist is fully explained. But even after a first viewing (albeit one forearmed with knowledge of the ending), Shutter Island is a dense film, and there’s a lot that Scorsese layers in that demands to be discussed; for instance the Dachau scenes take on a whole new meaning when viewed through the prism of the ending (and a couple of almost throwaway lines of dialogue). In fact, up until the ending, the film feels fairly flawless, making that reveal all the more irritating. Scorsese does what he can with the ending, but any reveal that demands one character pull out a chalk or dry erase board to spell things out is a bad reveal.
Again, knowing you’re in for a disappointment helps cushion the blow and allows you to really sink into the hypnagogic mood that Scorsese creates. Shutter Island could have been a disposable thriller but Scorsese makes it his own by meditating on the concept of guilt and its cost. Thirty-six years after Mean Streets Scorsese is still finding deep psychological and emotional veins to mine in what could have been standard genre material. That’s why he’s a genius. And that’s why Shutter Island is great.
8.5 out of 10