It’s like you can hear the clock ticking in that feverish, scampering brain of his. Martin Scorsese’s not that old, but he’s not that young. Movies take a long time to make, lots of money and planning, and who knows how much time he’s got left? After running the last few years through a divergent array of genres, from the historical epic (The Aviator) to the concert film (Shine a Light), there was a noticeable hole in his resume.
For all Scorsese’s delighted use of pulp tropes in the gangster films that made him a household name, those films were always a breed apart, energized more by his personal vision and the electricity being tossed off by his leading men than his impressive internal library of cinematic memories. Even with their cinema-drunk panache, Goodfellas and Mean Streets were ultimately beholden to few other filmmakers. What it came down to was that Scorsese had never knocked out a real genre picture, something that people could go see with some friends on a weekend night for a good scare.
So it was that, armed with recent viewings of classic noir films of obsession like Laura, Crossfire, and Out of the Past — cut with yellow-journalist gut-punches like Shock Corridor and revelatory documentaries like Titicut Follies for verisimilitude — Scorsese took Dennis Lehane’s B-flick-inspired novel Shutter Island and made a real monster of a film.
Leonardo DiCaprio, as federal marshal Teddy Daniels, is introduced to us puking his guts out. He’s on a tin cup of a ferry that comes out of the mist, fittingly, like a ghost on a mission. At his side is his new partner, a trusting and caring sort by the name of Chuck (Mark Ruffalo). Up ahead of them is the Boston Harbor island housing the Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane.
Teddy’s mission is to figure out what happened to inmate Rachel Solando, a woman who murdered her three children. She has spent her incarceration at Ashecliffe pretending she’s at her Berkshires home and that all the orderlies and guards are servants, deliver people, or what you have you. Somehow she escaped from a locked cell, without anybody seeing a thing, and though the island is surrounded by steep cliffs and miles of stormy sea, she hasn’t turned up.
It’s 1954 and everybody’s on edge, Teddy most particularly. Although he claims sea-sickness, you get the sense it could be anything that would send him teetering over the edge. He’s a pillar of nerves, all flop sweat and badly-kept secrets. It’s at times like this that one should thank the heavens that Scorsese found himself a new leading man — no matter his age, there is simply no way that De Niro could have made this level of vulnerability believable.
Scorsese keeps the nervousness ramped high throughout Teddy’s expertly staged introduction to the island. From the island dock, where gun-toting, slit-eyed guards wait with rifles at the ready, to the hospital’s inner quadrant, where chained inmates hobble about with fixed, “run, now” stares, the screws are always tightening. The island itself is made for fear, bristling with bad juju and overgrown with dark-green woods and nineteenth century fortifications. It’s a paranoid’s playground.
By the time Teddy and Chuck are introduced to the wonderfully fussy Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), whose pipe and generally genteel Oxbridge-ness mark him most certainly as a villain of note, most viewers will be ready to call in the National Guard to shut the place down for good. Nobody seems willing to talk, and there are roadblocks at every turn. Not much later, in an oak-paneled and leather armchair-studded den that screams out to be used for nefarious plotting, a crepuscular Max Von Sydow starts poking at Teddy’s “defense mechanisms” like a researcher prodding a rat in a maze. When Teddy — a veteran whose searing memories of liberating the Dachau concentration camp keep crashing into his waking life — lashes back at a man many will have already pegged a Nazi, it seems the case is solved. Only the details remain.
But Shutter Island isn’t that kind of film. The mystery is just the beginning. Before they’re done, Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis will have thrown everything from Manchurian Candidate-style brainwashing to Mengele-style human experimentation into the postwar mix, along with panicked screeds about the hydrogen bomb and the House Un-American Activities Committee. And Teddy will be dashing about the gothic isle, pursued by vicious hallucinations of the bodies twisted up in piles at Dachau and descending quite possibly into delusional behavior of his own. If it does anything, the film powerfully delivers the allure of the psychotic episode — it’s a wonderful escape from responsibility, after all.
This is an age-of-anxiety film, where the mental sciences are on the cusp between the barbaric Bedlam ways of treating the insane (chain them up, hose them down, beat them into submission, lobotomize if necessary) and the psychotherapeutic methods just crossing the horizon. Meanwhile, the rest of the world poised between the recovery from World War II and the full-scale launching of the Cold War. Through it all, Teddy is stuck on a haunted island, with a killer hurricane bearing down on them, a wicked migraine coming on, and dreams in which his dead wife (a dolorous Michele Williams, handling the film’s exaggerated Bah-stuhn accent much less well than her co-star) eggs him on to avenge her. The dreams keep coming, snow and ashes slowly drifting, pools of blood spreading. In no short order, Teddy’s a ravaged wreck of a man, with a tough tangle of a mystery still to solve.
Scorsese wears his influences on his sleeve all the way through here. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is more B-film jittery than his wont. Every pore of Di Caprio’s body, as well as the pained soliloquies delivered by a number of inmates and staff (played excellently in key roles by Patricia Clarkson, Elias Koteas, Jackie Earl Haley, and many others), is redolent of those bottled-up, mid-century noirs about corrupted societies and damaged anti-heroes. The film is a flotsam and jetsam creation that yet manages, throughout the nesting-doll of head-slapping revelations that punctuate its last quarter, to deliver something that we have not really seen before from Scorsese: the fully-felt genre film.
A haunted-house spooker mixed with an obsessed-detective noir, Shutter Island is not a great film. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t one of Scorsese’s best, and one to be remembered.