Shutter Island is also an incredibly appropriate entry in the Scorsese canon – it’s a film about an alienated man haunted by his past. Add Teddy Daniels to the list of Scorsese’s tragic and multilayered antiheroes – Jake La Motta, Travis Bickle, Henry Hill, Howard Hughes, Billy Costigan, Rupert Pupkin, Jesus Christ. The film also continues Scorsese's fascination with our understanding of violence (it should be noted that our perception of the lead character's violent actions changes dramatically when watching the film for a second time).
It's hard to talk about the film without referring to its powerful and jarring ending, and therefore while I may not explicitly state any major spoilers in the next few paragraphs, I will be making an effort to describe the overarching themes of the movie, which aren’t even fully apparent until the brilliant closing line of the film. For the average moviegoer, Shutter Island is a film to see at least twice; for cineastes, Shutter Island will hold up to countless viewings, offering something new and unexpected with each screening.
Shutter Island is eerie from the very beginning. U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and his newly assigned partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) steadily approach an island off the coast of Massachusetts known as Shutter Island, a mental hospital for the criminally insane. The year is 1954, and Scorsese and music supervisor Robbie Robertson of The Band (the subject of Scorsese's masterful concert documentary The Last Waltz) subtly incorporate vintage (and sometimes downright disturbing) 1950s music into the sound mix. Once on the island, Daniels and his partner meet with Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), who explains to the Marshals that one of the island's patients has mysteriously disappeared overnight. The investigation that ensues is a fascinating exploration of insanity.
Hovering over every scene is a paranoid, post-war anxiety shared explicitly by our protagonist and thoroughly felt and realized by Scorsese. Tensions rise as Teddy recalls horrific memories from liberating a concentration camp during the war, and his suspicions of Nazism and conspiracy by the House of Un-American Activities on the island become our suspicions. The best Scorsese films force the audience to live inside the minds of moderately-to-severely delusional characters weighed down by an enormous and overwhelming guilt. Shutter Island does just that.
DiCaprio’s performance is superlative and even more layered than one initially realizes. With this performance, I think it’s safe to say that DiCaprio is the best actor of his generation. In the past six years, he should have easily won an Academy Award for his performance as Howard Hughes in Scorsese's The Aviator, or as doomed informant Billy Costigan in Scorsese's The Departed (if I had any say, I’d have given him both). His work in Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond (2006) and Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road (2008) proves that his great performances are not limited to Scorsese films.
Kingsley has an extremely complex role, having to simultaneously appear darkly sinister and trustworthy (it’s not unlike the Philip Seymour Hoffman character in 2008's Doubt). Kingsley brilliantly morphs Cawley into a character equal parts teddy bear and creepy doctor - we don't know whether to trust him or run from him. Ruffalo's performance is pitch-perfect, as well, in another tricky role.
Scorsese has once again gathered an extraordinary ensemble, rivaling the acting companies of his previous two non-documentary features (The Aviator and The Departed). Alongside DiCaprio, Ruffalo and Kingsley are some of the finest character actors working today: Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch and Elias Koteas. Each actor brings their own element of spookiness to the film; Lynch, for instance, is cemented in my mind as the likely Zodiac killer in David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), and von Sydow is the center of several haunting Ingmar Bergman films, as well as The Exorcist (1973) and Minority Report (2002).
Shot by cinematographer Robert Richardson (who most recently worked his magic in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and deservedly won Academy Awards for his beautiful work on Scorsese’s The Aviator and Oliver Stone's JFK), the movie is impeccably shot and beautifully photographed. The art direction, in particular, creates a surrealistic, almost faux-looking world that is reminiscent of the greenscreen backdrops used in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). It's not apparent why this stylistic choice is so remarkably effective until, as you may have guessed, the second viewing.
For all of the comparisons critics have made between Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Shutter Island, Vertigo is actually the film that Shutter Island most closely resembles. In fact, I think a case could be made that Teddy Daniels and Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) are very similar characters. There is an unease throughout the entire film, deliberate disturbances in continuity that some audiences might mistake for sloppy editing. That's simply Oscar-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker toying with the audience, making us question the reality we're watching and the reliability of our protagonist. But no matter how delusional our protagonist's vision may be, we still stay with him and him alone until the very end – no different from our immersion into the minds of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Taxi Driver (1976) or Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) in Bringing out the Dead (1999).
The film is a brilliant melding of film noir, detective mystery and psychological horror, at its very core an exploration of an emotionally disturbed human psyche, disguised as a Hitchcockian thriller that works as both a homage to Scorsese’s favorite psychological thrillers from the 1940s and 1950s while simultaneously elevating itself into something larger and more complicated. When you watch Shutter Island, you're not just watching Scorsese's film – you're watching thousands of classic movies at once, assembled together in a picture conceived by a filmmaker whose encyclopedic knowledge of film history pours into every detail of every frame, so much so that an already-genuinely suspenseful scene of DiCaprio racing up a flight of winding stairs simultaneously serves as a homage to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948).
And yet most of the details I've mentioned about Shutter Island are not the reasons mainstream audiences will revel in the film's fascinating glory. The movie is, quite simply, very entertaining. I think audiences know they're watching a good movie when they see a Scorsese film, but I suspect they don't know how good the movie really is.
Unfortunately, Shutter Island has come under attack from, as my good friend calls them, the pseudo-intellectual crowd. From what I can gather, the general complaint is that the movie takes itself too seriously dramatically, and that some of the dramatic shifts in the film are laughable. Perhaps this is because Scorsese refuses to compromise his vision by winking at the audience. When discussing The Best Films of the 1990s with Martin Scorsese in early 2000, film critic Roger Ebert notes that at some point in the 1990s, existentialism, "the idea of what we do with our lives," was "replaced by irony, so that everything has quotation marks around it." He then adds, however, that Scorsese's "films are not in quotation marks...they are meant."
And he's absolutely right. Scorsese can’t make an ironic film - a film too afraid to deal head-on with real, palpable human emotion, therefore putting the actions of its characters in huge quotation marks. My favorite films of the past few years don't have ironic quotation marks around their characters, either. I don’t buy movies that do that – it’s a cheap way of pleasing the cynical, highbrow crowd who only accept genuine human emotion in films if it comes from Pixar Animation or a foreign-language film. I love those movies, too, but I haven’t given up on serious American films that aim for high character drama and succeed. I’m talking about Clint Eastwood's Mystic River (2003), Scorsese's The Aviator (2004), Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005) and now, Shutter Island. These are films that take their characters and their plights seriously.
Every negative review I've read doesn't seem to consider how effective the film is on a visceral level, how strong and forceful the performances are from top to bottom and the powerful manner in which screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis keeps the story grounded in the deep emotional turmoil of its characters. Shutter Island is a real film, the kind they don't make anymore, exceeding the supposed limitations of its genre and offering its audience something challenging and psychologically fascinating. Scorsese doesn't have to make movies anymore - he's already made more masterpieces than any other living filmmaker - but we're lucky that he's still exploring his obsessions in new and inventive ways. Shutter Island should be met with applause, not simply because the film marks the latest work from our finest living filmmaker, but because it's also the best damn movie you'll see this year.