It Was a Dark and Stormy Night . . .
By Michael Koresky

Shutter Island
Dir. Martin Scorsese, U.S., Paramount

Once upon a time, Martin Scorsese’s occasional dabbling in genre filmmaking would come packaged with a twist. Indeed, looking back over his oeuvre, one can spot the musical, the sports picture, the comedy, the horror film, (and, yes, the gangster film). Yet the final product was so far afield from such strictly designated categories that one would never dare reduce them. New York, New York (perhaps the film that most baldly evokes common movie tropes) transcends imitation in its raw performances and abnormal scene duration, in the chilling brutality of its palpable, almost Cassavetes-like marital spats; Raging Bull, of course, never was your grandfather’s boxing picture, an intensely personal and nearly ethnographic dissection of a lone brute; The King of Comedy’s thin veneer of slapstick barely conceals some of the most terrifying pathologies put onscreen in the Eighties; Cape Fear’s monster slices through the screen with agonizing, suspenseful precision, yet it’s that rare depiction of a family’s dysfunction that truly frightens, wrenching ideas of good and evil out of their comfort zones. To praise these films is not to instantly assume that such genres necessarily need to be scrutinized or eviscerated, but to acknowledge Scorsese’s imbuing of common narrative fallbacks with his seeking, passionate artistry, which often has manifested not merely as technical bravura but as part of a individualistic journey, both through film and his own tenable life philosophies.

Of late, many of Scorsese’s most ardent admirers have been dubious, and his detractors have been able to add coal to their furnaces, perhaps because Scorsese’s relationship to genre seems to have altered. In the past decade or so, the auteur—who’s as renowned for his indefatigable cinephilia, extensive movie knowledge, and his ability to turn that love of cinema into preservation as he is for his own filmography—has been taking on familiar themes and classic movie molds, but staying fairly firmly within the parameters established for them by decades of cinema. We know he knows these types of films down to the letter, so no one seems surprised that he continually pulls them off. Who was shocked when The Aviator turned out to be a lusciously mounted biopic? Or that The Departed one-upped its Hong Kong source material with mean-streets flare and muscular mafia storytelling? Even Gangs of New York, though clearly an extraordinary passion project, ultimately functioned as little more than a perfunctory gangland revenge epic. Though the particulars remain debatable (an anachronistic Cameron Diaz here, a remedial Boston accent there), all three films worked well on their own terms (especially The Departed)—it was the fact that this is all they seemed to do that irked the doubters, regardless of the fact that making such potentially convoluted narratives “work” at all is something of an achievement in itself.

Which brings us to Shutter Island, adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novel: it’s easily the most “genre” film of this late pack, both in conception and execution, and the one that remains most trapped within its circumscribed horror boundaries. It opens with a massive ship creeping out of a thick fog; foreboding Krzysztof Penderecki strings on the soundtrack signal doom; its two principal male characters, U.S. federal marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), are first seen donning fedoras and in hardboiled Boston drawls saying things like “stohm’s comin’.” This is something different for Scorsese, a period thriller, one which fetishizes the tropes of those earlier eras of filmmaking that the director has been salivating over for years in cine-essays like A Personal Journey Through American Movies. From the start, there’s a nagging sense of facsimile, which, though not entirely unexpected, feels new for Scorsese, save perhaps the snipped-out climactic musical extravaganza in New York, New York (reinstated for most home video releases). As DiCaprio and Ruffalo exchange standoffish macho niceties onboard the boat heading for distant Shutter Island—home to a labyrinthine mental hospital for the criminally insane where they are going to investigate a dangerous patient gone missing—there’s a groundlessness. The ominousness feels forced, but in a way we’re meant to accept as forced, as though our emotional involvement is naturally precluded by years of gothic movie scares; even the CG gloomy grey skies surrounding the two men feel purposely over-emphatic, like a winking new form of rear projection. Climactic twists may go a long way in lending narrative rationale to these choices, but only in an illogical, narrow movie-movie way,

In other words, there’s a constant self-awareness in Shutter Island; this wouldn’t necessarily defuse the film’s urgency (De Palma’s been able to wring soul-shaking cinema from winks for decades, with such alacrity in some cases as to make his precedents all but moot), but as a result there’s initially an air of detachment that’s hard to soldier through. Consummate storyteller though he is (along with those in his usual circle, including editor Thelma Schoonmaker, DP Robert Richardson, art director Dante Ferreti) it takes a good half-hour before Scorsese finds any footing in such precarious territory, in which time we are introduced to such decidedly unpromising developments as Ben Kingsley’s to-the-letter Donald Pleasance imitation as the hospital’s chief physician; Max von Sydow’s umpteenth chin-quivering incarnation of a vaguely Germanic, probably diabolical doctor; guards warning against the wickedest parts of the island (stay out of Ward C!); and a strong dose of teasing flashbacks to Teddy’s own mysterious history, lit with that color-saturated, rosily dreamlike glow that’s been constantly used to demarcate past from present since Taylor Hackford’s Dolores Claiborne.

It takes seemingly as long to get acclimated to this increasingly sweaty slice of Grand Guignol as it does to get used to DiCaprio pronouncing such phrases as “electrified perimetah” with Beantown flourish. While this potboiler’s on simmer, there’s little to do but luxuriate in the practiced panache: artfully dangling manacles, gathering clouds and violent thunderstorms, ceramic cherubs framed against rain-spattered windows, a Mahler record spinning in the turntable. It’s almost a relief when Teddy’s paranoia goes into overdrive: after interviewing patients and doctors, all of whom seem giddily in on some collective joke regarding the vanished inmate Rachel Solando, imprisoned for drowning her three children, he begins to suspect a larger conspiracy at play. Already seemingly straitjacket-ready, Teddy comes with a stacked deck of his own problems larger than his initial seasickness (DiCaprio never seems to slough off the sheen of vomitous perspiration he wears in the opening scene), constantly haunted as he is by the accidental death-by-fire of his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams, a wispy ghost), and his memories of the horrors at Dachau, where as a soldier he helped liberate the camp survivors, as well as take part in the assassination of the Nazi guards on duty. Thus, the question of why Teddy was summoned to this remote place (where, coincidentally, the man allegedly responsible for starting the blaze that killed Dolores, is held) becomes more important than the whereabouts of Rachel—as do the particulars of how Scorsese will build to a suitable lighthouse climax (the linchpin of many a tale of madness in the past century of cinema, from Portrait of Jennie to In the Cut).

An impressive array of flaws and demons visited upon his character, DiCaprio runs with the role as if his life depended on it: rarely have the actor’s occasional facial bloat and suspicious narrow eyes been utilized so cannily. Freed from imitation (The Aviator) or petrified righteousness (Gangs of New York), DiCaprio one-ups even his street-sly work in The Departed, in which Scorsese first allowed him to assume an approachable adult sexiness. When Shutter Island forges ahead into some irredeemable histrionics (both narratively and aesthetically), DiCaprio keeps up every step of the way, never allowing Scorsese to drown him out.

With an actor of such conviction at the helm, Shutter Island stays anchored, especially in its middle hour, in which a succession of conversations with absurdly, entertainingly overwrought character actors (Jackie Earle Haley, Patricia Clarkson, Ted “The Tuck” Levine) in increasingly outlandish locations (an inmate cell that would be unfit for Bobby Sands; a cave in a seaside cliff) ratchet up the capital-m Mystery innumerable notches. The pleasures of watching a seemingly ungraspable plot, with a panoply of glaringly irreconcilable threads and motifs, deepen and stretch to madness, are hard to overestimate; reining in those disparate subplots and gothic tchotchkes together into a satisfying whole is another story. Sadly, Shutter Island is less Wicker Man (in which a man is brought to a remote island under false, nefarious pretenses and cannot leave) than another Cuckoo’s Nest. How Scorsese explicates, and more crucially, visualizes, Lehane’s final revelations ultimately undo Shutter Island, even more than the elaborate preposterousness of the conceit: without spoiling too much, let it be said that not even Rosemary Woodhouse would dare chart out anagrams with such determination and dexterity as does Kingsley’s proto-Dr. Loomis; likewise, Basic Instinct’s Catherine Trammell would blush at how brazenly Shutter Island’s nurses brandish their gleaming ice picks en route to Lobotomy Lighthouse.

Speaking of brazenness, it takes a certain amount of chutzpah (or is it lack of reflection?) to lunge with such abandon into the grotesque imagery Scorsese and Robert Richardson dash off with aplomb throughout the film. Artfully composed corpses of women and children are the order of the day in Shutter Island, whether at Dachau (where frozen bodies slide from an open train compartment like shimmering icicles) or an idyllic suburban backyard. Not content to be claptrap (which it clearly is, and occasionally enthrallingly so), Scorsese trumps up what might have been a neat pulp knock-off into a wild-eyed stab at everything from government mental health control to HUAC to the Holocaust to the H-bomb—in other words, this isn’t merely a film that takes place in 1950s America but it has to be a film about 1950s America. To do so, he gets lugubrious, constantly telling and showing, where a healthy dose of ambiguity might have done the trick, especially in the film’s endless climactic flashback to an overly glorified act of unimaginable violence.

Time is kind to genre films, untethered as they normally are from award aspiration and the need to court prestige. In this regard, Scorsese has succeeded. But ruminative dialogue such as that delivered by Levine’s storm-trooper-esque warden in his “God gave us violence” speech (“You would crack my skull and eat my meaty parts,” he growls to Teddy about the demon that lives in us all) is timelessly silly, then or now. This said, if Scorsese had indeed made a cheap little 80-minute (rather than 140) homage to the Tourneur and Clouzout gems or pulp melodramas he so cherishes, would that have been considered acceptable by the Serious Auteur police either? He’s between a rock and hard place with Shutter Island, which is both too frivolous and self-important to be taken seriously, though it’s hard to figure out just how seriously it craves to be taken.