Film

Shutter Island: In a Lonely Place

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.


Shutter Island

Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo, Emily Mortimer, Michelle Williams, Max Von Sydow, Patricia Clarkson, John Carroll Lynch, Ted Levine, Elias Koteas, Jackie Earl Haley
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-02-19
Website
Trailer

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.

8

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image