[7 June 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The typical definition of insanity is one’s failure to fully grasp reality. Put another way, the clinically deranged cannot fathom the crystal clear differences between our world and the fantasy land swirling around their swollen psyche. Perhaps this is why the realm of the unhinged has been so ripe for cinematic exploration. From actual case histories to wild, made-up manias, Hollywood loves to dabble in the lunatic fringe -with frequently uneven results. But when Martin Scorsese decided to deliver a horrific Hitchcock homage based on Dennis Lehane’s literary thriller Shutter Island, few could have imagined the masterpiece he’d create. Though he’s an American treasure, one of our greatest living filmmakers…blah, blah, blah - he is still trudging through tenuous territory.
Now comes the amazing Blu-ray of the 2010 hit, a gorgeous transfer teaching us that, sometimes, style and pure filmmaking flare can occasionally substitute for sense, sensibility, and sporadic lapses in plot logic. Does everything match up successfully once the last act “twist” is revealed? Not really. Do we marvel as the man responsible for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino works a similar artist magic on material that many would consider exploitative schlock? You betcha, and the main reason is obvious almost from the first frame: Scorsese has decided to act just as nuts as the characters the narrative centers around. When he isn’t cribbing from the Master of Suspense and decades of post-modern noir, he’s utilizing a gonzo like approach that almost redefines our impression of the director.
Current collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio stars as stunted Federal Marshall Teddy Daniels. It’s 1954, and our hero carries with him the haunting memories of a dead wife (Michelle Williams) and the liberation of Dachau during WWII. Assigned a new partner from Seattle, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), he has requested the task of heading to Shutter Island off the coast of Boston, Massachusetts. There, he must investigate the disappearance of convicted child killer.
As he meets the various staff of Ashecliff Hospital, including head Doctors Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Naehring (Max Van Sydow), he is convinced that something more sinister exists inside the locked buildings and inaccessible areas of the facility. It’s not long before Teddy and Chuck find themselves stranded, a powerful storm tearing at the very heart of the locale, revealing more unsettling secrets along the way.
As a clockwork exercise in audience manipulation, as genre-jumping Gothic horror loaded with Golden Age flourish, as a chance for the creator of cinematic marvels to play b-movie madman for once in his life, Shutter Island offers Martin Scorsese at the top of his game. Forget all the obvious nods to the genre’s straightjacket past. Continuity, matching shots, and editorial precision be damned! This is a filmmaker having fun for once, letting his always fervid imagination to run unchecked for 135 glorious minutes. Stretched between Lehane’s heavy-handed melodramatics, which provide a perfect cushion for where Scorsese’s experiments fall, this is the first great movie of 2010, a pristine example of cinema at its most sly and seductive - and the Blu-ray reproduces it in loving detail.
Sure, it takes nearly an hour to get going, our heroes locked in one overlong condemning conversation after another. True, there are no genuine shivers, shocks meant to catch you off guard before the true bloodshed occurs. Instead, this is the true definition of terror, a film that plays with your perceptions until you’re not quite sure what to believe and what to fear. This is also a movie mired in ambiguities, where nothing and no one is ever quite what they seem. When we first meet Teddy, he comes across as world weary and worn. Fast forward a few minutes and he’s already on a downward spiral toward his own personal Hell. Chuck also comes across as helpful but hindered, unseen forces keeping him from fully functioning as Teddy’s partner. Naehring may be a Nazi war criminal. He may also be a harmless old psychiatrist with an unfortunate Teutonic accent. Kingsley’s Cawley is perhaps the most fascinating. He’s always polite and amenable, even when he appears to be stonewalling the Feds at every step of their investigation.
Inside the asylum itself, the patients also come across as narratively schizophrenic. One ax murderess is actually lucid enough to discuss her crime (and to warn the cops of impending doom). Another denies his actions only to show unbelievably violent rage when Teddy continues to aggravate him. From orderlies who provide comfort but little confidence to whackjobs who show off their literal split personas, Scorsese drenches us in the symbols of dread. As we move deeper and deeper into this sheltered abyss, as Teddy finds himself lost and alone without anything remotely reasonable to hang onto, Shutter Island finally explodes. The last 45 minutes or so are one delicious denouement after another, explanations and reboots requiring us to remember what came before and how it might fit, emblematically, with what is currently happening on the screen.
As for the acting, it’s all awards caliber. DiCaprio, who made a similar impression last year with his fascinating work in Revolutionary Road, is clearly synced up with his own inner demons now. His performance is all rage personified and mental torment telegraphed. It’s the most mature work he’s ever done, losing almost all of his pretty boy façade to face the evils inside this place (and himself) with tightrope tenacity. He is matched by Ruffalo, given the mostly thankless role of expository receptacle. Still, he illuminates the plot points with enough cynicism to keep the audience on his side. Kingsley and Von Sydow are masterful as two sides of the same supposedly sinister coin. The latter hardly hides it, always looking at Teddy and Chuck as interlopers in a realm they don’t dare belong in. Sir Ben, on the other hand, is far more slick. He’s trying to lull his guests into a sense of complacency, the better to thwart their efforts when the need arises.
Then there is the ending. As with many movies of this kind, something “happens” which then twists everything we know into a shameless shadow of its former already frustrating self. As Scorsese walks us through each revelation, as he actually takes the time to illustrate each point that is being made and maneuvers the time line so that events that which seem impossible or incongruous end up falling meticulously into place, we marvel at the skill. Still, nothing is really settled during the last 15 minutes. Answers are indeed offered, but they don’t satisfy so much as get us scratching our heads all over again. Since Scorsese has been messing with us since the very beginning, cutting between characters without matching their actions, etc. we expect such artifice. Taken another way, such an open-ended approach is nothing short of genius.
As for the Blu-ray itself, it’s not offering many answers. While the visual and audio elements are truly mind-bending (including a darkened scene in a far off cell where Teddy meets his true fate), the added content is rather sparse. There are only two featurettes offered - one a basic EPK like look at the film’s production, featuring the cast and crew, and a more in-depth look at how Scorsese reinforced the story with deeper emotional and psychological meaning. No deleted scenes or full length audio commentary. No specific attempt to address what many fans will see as a finale so fascinatingly oblique that it demands something along the lines of a complete Criterion overhaul. Still, for a movie that many thought would flop considering its convoluted release schedule (originally primed for 2009’s award season, it was ‘shuttled’ off to February, often seen as the commercial kiss of death), the transfer celebrates its success.
That the eventual release of the film would be as crazy as every other aspect of Shutter Island speaks to its epic meta measures. When you think about it, nothing about the movie makes sense - not the plot, the players, the particulars within each backstory, the resolutions and the reactions to same. If you go in thinking that this will be a typical thriller, you’ll be gravely disappointed. Scorsese is clearly capable of same - see his ridiculously on-target remake of Cape Fear - but he’s decided to “go native” with the rest of the atoll’s population. The results are one of 2010’s best films, a motion picture experience that reminds you that, when everyone around you is totally insane, the most normal thing you can do is join them. This time around, Martin Scorsese did just that.