Martin Scorsese is an American treasure. He’s our greatest living filmmaker. He’s an artist in a realm…blah, blah, blah. There is no need to go over reexamine over and over again the resume of the man who made Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Every review of his latest film, the sensational Shutter Island, will drag up his past like a stripper entering the sainthood and swear this is somehow relevant. Yes, this is the man who forged the fabulous Goodfellas and Casino. This is the individual who took on the religious fundamentalist with The Last Temptation of Christ and followed his muse through confounding efforts like Kundun and The Age of Innocence. He is much more than a mob maestro, a savant of the streets, or any other alliterative title you want to give him. Martin Scorsese is first and foremost a director, and his take on Dennis Lehane’s literary thriller is proof of his continuing proficiency behind the lens.
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 plot twist timed exercise, as genre-jumping Gothic horror, as a chance for the creator of masterpieces to play schlockmeister for once in his life, Shutter Island offers Martin Scorsese at the top of his game. Forget all the obvious nods to b-movies 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.
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. As psychological edge of your seat entertainments go, this is right up there with the likes of Hitchcock and his post-modern mimic, Brian DePalma. Indeed, Scorsese seems to be reaching back to his days as one of Roger Corman’s apprentices, the various macabre elements in the movie having the same, surreal story value as those low budget, off the cuff “classics”.
This is 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 appear 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 such violent rage when Teddy continues to aggravate him. From orderlies who provide comfort but little confidence to psychos 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 steps up its game. 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 here. 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 actually illustrate each point that is being made and manipulating 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.
It remains to be seen whether Shutter Island will be embraced by an audience overfed on Hollywood hype that started some six months ago. Then, the movie itself was poised to open along with several other prestige pictures in what was deemed a crowded pre-Oscar season. Within such a commercial stare down, the studio flinched. It quickly pulled Shutter Island and exiled it to this middle of cinematic nowhere opening. Unlike other titles who earn similar treatment for their less than successful entertainment value, the latest from Martin Scorsese deserves better. Some will question both his intent and his execution, and many won’t see subtleties amidst the dashed expectations. Go into Shutter Island thinking it’s a typical thriller and you’ll be disappointed. Enter ready to have your entire concept of genre cinema reconfigured and you’ll agree – Scorsese’s version of schlock is sensational.