It doesn’t need to be said that Martin Scorsese is a living legend. He has more classic films under his belt than any filmmaker deserves. At this point, he could probably direct in his sleep, and he very well might do so in the future. Hey, he’s earned it! No one can dispute the brilliance of his seminal pictures Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas (well, not successfully anyway). His last film, The Departed, won him his first Best Director Oscar and also became his first film to claim Best Picture. Then the backlash began. That’s not to say Scorsese had never been criticised in the past. But fans began to lament the fact that one of the last remaining filmmakers of the New Hollywood movement was working on projects seemingly unworthy of his time. Sure, The Departed didn’t feature the weighty, grandiose themes of his earlier work. But it was about as perfect a crime-thriller as you can get. His latest film, Shutter Island, is even less “important” than The Departed. But Scorsese is clearly enjoying himself with this old-school throwback to thrillers past. And it’s hard not to revel in it with him.
The year is 1952. Two U.S. marshals, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), emerge from the fog aboard a rickety old ferry en route to Shutter Island. The island is home to the Ashecliffe hospital for the criminally insane. A patient has escaped, seemingly into thin air. Her name is Rachel Solondo and she’s a frail, intense woman who drowned her three children yet refuses to accept that they are dead. The marshals begin their investigation, but it seems like everyone is hiding something. Even Daniels. Especially Daniels. He suspects that the doctors are actually conducting experiments on their patients, recalling the ‘tests’ orchestrated by the Nazis. He intends to get to the bottom of the conspiracy, regardless of the danger. At night he dreams of his late wife (Michelle Williams), who warns him to stop digging. He should have listened.
Shutter Island is based on Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name, adapted for the screen by Laeta Kalogridis. It is not the first time Lehane’s work has been turned into a movie. Ben Affleck directed an excellent adaptation of his novel Gone Baby Gone in 2007, while Clint Eastwood developed Mystic River into a film in 2003. Now, Eastwood is a director who will not rest until he can inject each of his pictures with as much ham-fisted ‘profundity’ as possible. It didn’t exactly seem like a film, but instead a competition amongst the stars (particularly Tim Robbins and Sean Penn) to out-mug one another. Scorsese on the other hand, although perfectly adept at achieving genuine profundity, has fun with Lehane’s source material.
From the unsettling first shot to the haunting final frame, Scorsese seems to relish every moment of Shutter Island. His trademark camera tricks are all here; whip-pans, tracking shots et al. But here he’s more concerned with evoking the great psychological thrillers, particularly Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Kubrick’s The Shining, and probably a dozen more films that you and I have never seen (Scorsese, a cinephile of the highest degree, prepares a list of movies for his cast to watch for inspiration before shooting begins). It achieves the rare feat of perfectly capturing the sensation of a nightmare, much like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. The sound design is particularly brilliant, with every single moment of audio custom designed to set you shivering. At times, the film boldly breaks free of its ‘psychological thriller’ shackles and ventures into genuine horror. And it is genuinely horrifying. Make no mistake, this is Scorsese trying his hand at pure genre; it’s occasionally schlocky and the scares are sometimes very cheeky. But it always feels like the work of a master.
So while it is no crime for the great Scorsese to “lower” himself to direct a disposable thriller, it is a crime that its climactic scene almost derails the effectiveness of the picture’s first two thirds. The ending of Shutter Island is not so much unexpected as it is inexplicable. Anyone who has seen a psychological thriller before will be expecting a twist from the get go, but most audience members will likely be left scratching their heads with this one. That’s not to say it’s particularly surprising, or even inventive. The best twist endings should inform further viewings of the film; we should pick up hints and clues that we didn’t notice the first time. A second viewing of Shutter Island will likely only infuriate. It just doesn’t work.
But despite the – let’s face it – ridiculousness of the final twist, such is Scorsese’ talent that he still makes the reveal absolutely compulsive cinema. In fact, the flashback sequence that occurs at the end of the film is, in my opinion, the picture’s best moment. It helps that the cast are all incredible. DiCaprio, although not as unpredictable a foil to Scorsese as DeNiro, is great. I’m reluctant to list off the other actors who appear in the film, as their appearances are both brief and pivotal to the film’s surprises. Let’s just say that if they’re in the film, they’re brilliant. So to everyone waxing nostalgic about the director’s “good ol’ days”, I say that Shutter Island is dark, disturbing and very, very weird. Sounds like vintage Scorsese to me.