In many reviews, I have castigated directors and writers for that matter] of failing to make a successful thriller/horror/noir film because they went into it with one tone – usually grey. There are precious few breaks in the bleakness of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island and yet I never felt bored by its unremittingly ominous tone. Maybe that’s because Scorsese is a master storyteller and has the ability to produce subtle tonal changes – even in a film that does not rely on subtlety in any normal sense.
Of course, Shutter Island [based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, whose Gone, Baby, Gone was a recently adapted for film] opens with U.S. marshal Teddy Daniels [Leonardo DiCaprio] losing his lunch on a ferry bound for the titular island – and, after introducing Teddy’s new partner, Chuck Aule [Mark Ruffalo] moves to an exterior shot showing the ferry emerging from a fogbank like a ghost ship as a three-chord stinger blasts at us. This combination of sight and sound is abrupt and unsettling – and merely a taste of what is to come.
It is 1954 and Teddy and Chuck are visiting a hospital for the criminally insane, situated on a nearly impregnable island in Boston Harbor – ostensibly to investigate the disappearance of one of the “patients,” a woman who killed her three children.
From the moment the film begins, we are made to feel that there is something that’s off about the whole thing. Individual scenes feature intriguing exchanges and/or events but is it possible that the omniscient eye of the camera is lying to us? Is Shutter Island a descent into madness, an ascent from madness, or something altogether different?
For a film as intricately staged as this to work, it has to have an incredible cast; seem to follow some kind of logic [real world or dream logic, but logic], and play fair with the audience while still messing with it. Laeta Kalogridis’ script twists and squirms like a shapeshifter trying to escape the grip of a god, but there are, hidden within, clues. Do they add up? Yes and no.
Is the head of hospital, Dr. Cawley [Ben Kingsley] beneficent or evil? Kingsley’s ability to give a performance that could be interpreted either way – without seeming banal – adds gravity, and a bit of humor, to the film that is augmented niftily by Max Von Sydow’s Dr. Naehring. Naehring provokes a unique response in Teddy, causing him to flash back to the liberation of Dachau at the end of World War II. Like any true noir, Shutter Island comes with more baggage than just seasickness.
And what of Rachel Solonda [Emily Mortimer], the patient who has disappeared? How does anyone escape from a cell – locked from the outside – that has walls several feet thick? Does this even matter?
With Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese is playing on the same field as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Jules Dassin. Like them, he tells his story the way it needs to be told. If it doesn’t fall into place like a neatly boxed puzzle, it doesn’t matter. It’s the story he needed to tell, told the way it had to be told.
We don’t notice the loose ends because we can’t be sure which ends, exactly, are loose. And like most great noir films, it is the characters – in all their flawed glory – that carry us through. In this case, DiCaprio and Kingsley carry the film – though the entire cast gets to shine at one point or another [Ted Levine’s brief role as the warden, a philosopher of violence; John Carol Lynch’s darkly amiable deputy warden; a devastating Jackie Earle Haley].
Shutter Island is a creepy and unsettling thriller. Scorsese builds tension to almost unbearable levels but doesn’t use violence to allow momentary release, but as another device to play on our nerves. To be blunt, the film exhausted me. In a good way – though I had to think about it before I could pin down why.
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