I noticed when I signed into my Blogger account to write this a whopping five posts in a row discussing Martin Scorsese's much-belated B-movie Shutter Island. Given the broad disinterest shown in the bloggers I follow (not to mention myself) concerning the 2010 features released up to this point, I got a kick out of seeing everyone snap to attention. Adding to my amusement was the fact that the miniature excerpts from all five were variations on "Warning: contains spoilers." I plan to cross-review this for my school paper and I'm too lazy to write two entirely separate articles, so I shall avoid spoilers in this review.
Besides, the various twists and turns of Shutter Island just do not matter, and Martin Scorsese knows it. I have heard grumblings through the grapevine that Shutter Island marks Scorsese's attempt to ape twist-master M. Night Shyamalan. This is categorically untrue; if Scorsese wanted the unlocking of the narrative to be the film's ultimate payoff, he would not have telegraphed it from the first minute. Anyone remotely paying attention to the film can and will deduce its ultimate truth by the 10-minute mark, what with the pointed looks and deliberately overacted emphases on certain key phrases such as "defense mechanisms."
What the director does instead is use the messy pulp of Dennis Lehane's novel -- which I have not read but feel confident on the basis of the film saying is far, far, far removed from his usual output, about as far as Shutter Island is from native Boston -- is craft his best film since Gangs of New York, and his most brazenly cinematic since Bringing Out the Dead. Like Scorsese's underrated mid-'80s style-over-substance feature (After Hours), made in direct response to the aborted first attempt to make The Last Temptation of Christ, Shutter Island is Kafkaesque, though not in a particularly deep way. Where After Hours played its psychological mire for laughs, Shutter Island works as a thriller, but the two share a kinship in their display of Scorsese's boundless visual form and the jollies he gets from throwing caution to the wind.
You can see that the director is having a ball from the first frames of the film, as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonard DiCaprio) converses with his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) as they ride a ferry to the titular island. The camera jumps between them as if Godard had sneaked into the editing room, further interrupting these jump cuts with visual asides to Teddy's past, of his wife (Michelle Williams), whom Teddy says died in an apartment fire. The two men are headed to Shutter Island and its mental health facility, Ashecliffe, to investigate a missing patient, whom the doctors say managed to slip through the facility's considerable security measures "as if she evaporated straight through the walls."
For the sake of spoilers, I shall go no further, nor would I feel much inclination to continue following the narrative even if I felt no obligation to protect the mystery for readers. Shutter Island is a giant red herring, and more than that a red herring that flops about and speaks like those awful singing basses that so woefully became the rage around the turn of the millennium when we are all so happy to have survived Y2K that we made some very poor decisions indeed. Unspooling a complicated but hardly complex yarn would suck all the enjoyment out of the movie, as well as the pleasure of discussing it.
What is important, or at least relevant, is how much Shutter Island runs into the open arms of the glory days of the cinema. The overacting, while easily justifiable in retrospect, clearly harks back to the days before Brando tore apart the rulebook, when actors emoted with a capital "E." As an epic psychological thriller, Shutter Island most clearly derives from two sources: Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and Powell & Pressburger's Black Narcissus (the nature of the asylum and the overacting found within obviously brings to mind Samuel Suller's Shock Corridor). The sheer cliffs of the island match the rock faces that trapped the nuns in Powell's tripped-out vision of India, while the structure of the film, particularly the camera's alignment with the point-of-view of a detective who wrestles with his own perception, comes straight out of Vertigo.
It also marks a return to Scorsese's best kind of filmmaking, the sort that places his camera into the fractured POV of a warped character. Scorsese hasn't filmed in this style since his final collaboration with Paul Schrader, the criminally underappreciated Bringing Out the Dead, and he hasn't lost his knack for spellbinding shots that you can't always trust, even if he's telling a far simpler tale with Teddy than he did with Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta or Frank Pierce. Helping matters tremendously is the gorgeous photography by Robert Richardson, who won an Oscar for his work on the director's The Aviator.
Combined with Scorsese's energetic, freewheeling direction, the Powell-influenced cinematography makes for some startling moments. Who could sit there and argue that the film isn't "real" or "deep" enough as Scorsese gives us a horrifying glimpse into Teddy's past as a WWII veteran, a scene framed in the same "movie movie" style as the rest of the picture yet filled with a weight far heavier than the heartstring-tugging content of what's on the screen? And what of the foray into the dreaded Ward C, where the most dangerous psychopaths are kept, its dizzying, rusted metal staircases and walkways resembling a post-industrial version of M.C. Escher's Relativity?
So, yes, Shutter Island is, at its heart, a 140-minute paean to Scorsese's abilities as a visual stylist. But for all of us who guessed the ending before moving out of the first act, how many could have expected the inevitable reveal to be so moving, so like Vertigo in its striking moment of pure empathy between audience and character, even if that moment is forced upon us by the director? Shutter Island could mark an important turning point for the director, who suffered under the yoke of the Weinsteins on Gangs of New York and lost The Departed to Jack Nicholson. Now, with Oscar in hand, Scorsese is confident enough to be himself again, something we haven't seen in years. His long-discussed adaptation of Shusaku Endo's Silence appears at last to be on track, and Scorsese himself asked for the final delay in this film's release to tweak a few more odds and ends in post-production, effectively removing the film from receiving any Oscar attention this year or the next for the sake of making the movie he wanted. Let us hope, then, that Scorsese makes of this decade what Spielberg made of the last one: a period of astonishing late-career creativity by a director who no longer has anything left to prove.