Perhaps it’s a cliché that as artists grow older they’re supposed to produce their most mature, sophisticated masterworks; maybe it’s tradition that’s taught us this. Certainly, history is full of such examples in every medium, but this seems less of a trend in film where directors often hit their peak during the early or mid parts of their career rather than the later parts. After all, Citizen Kane aka “The Greatest Film Ever”, was the debut film of a 26-year-old Orson Welles. It seems the same holds true for Martin Scorsese who made his most celebrated films in the late-70s to early-80s, but whose modern work is most notable for its distinct, classical genre influences.
This is another such film. While The Departed worked in the police procedural thriller genre, Shutter Island is a classic mystery thriller with a “twist”. The story concerns a U.S. Marshall named Teddy Daniels (Leo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) who are dispatched to a mental institution for the criminally insane to investigate the odd disappearance of a patient/prisoner. Ben Kingsley is Dr. Cawley, the primary doctor and head of the facility, and Max von Sydow is Dr. Naehring, one of his partners. From the beginning Teddy senses that something isn’t right, and he soon begins uncovering clues that suggest that there might be horrific experiments taking place, that there is a missing “67th” inmate, and that perhaps even he is being drugged and targeted for investigating the facility in the first place. To make matters worse he’s being haunted in vivid dreams by his dead wife, Dalores (Michelle Williams).
A lot has been said about the “twist” ending, with opinions ranging from “Yeah, it was completely obvious” to “It’s completely indecipherable”. I fall wholly in the former camp. For those paying attention it is quite clear very early on what’s happening, and for those who have seen films like Jacob’s Ladder or many of David Lynch’s films it should be even easier to see the truth through all of the red herrings. I honestly don’t understand those in the “indecipherable” crowd considering that Scorsese allows plentiful time for clarifying exposition. For those who are tuned in to the trick Scorsese and company are playing, the only question left is whether or not the presentation makes it worth their time, and that all comes down to the acting and direction.
In recent years, Scorsese has, if nothing else, proven himself to be a masterful craftsman, and it’s perhaps that transition from eminent cinematic artist to excellent genre craftsman that has thrown so many off. But Shutter Island is full of directorial touches that only a wily veteran like Scorsese could pull off so effortlessly: his modulation between low contrast, desaturated frames and high contrast, highly saturated frames, for instance, or those visceral tracking shots that haven’t lost their power since his early films. Even if his average-shot-length has plummeted, his editing still maintains a muscular rhythm that most modern directors could only dream of maintaining. Scorsese also deftly orchestrates the many viewpoints of the film that will play entirely different on a first viewing than they do on a second viewing. Though occasionally he shows off some of the worst tendencies of modern cinema like that annoying 360-degree swirling camera.
Almost simultaneously with Scorsese’s rise as a craftsman, DiCaprio has established himself as one of the finest and most underrated actors of his generation. His Teddy is an extremely dynamic character, often requiring extreme shifts of emotions even within a single scene. But if DiCaprio’s intensity doesn’t get us, his emotional vulnerability will. Early on it becomes apparent that Teddy is a character suffering from his own traumatic past, and that the facility on Shutter Island is designed almost to be a metaphor for his tortured, labyrinthine mind.
We can chalk this up to the wonderful art design that, according to the film’s psychiatric adviser, perfectly recreates the look and feel of such facilities during the ’50s when the film is set. The date itself plays an important, but subtle, role that most might miss in the respect that it was a time in psychiatry when there was a war between those who believed in lobotomies to control patients, those who believed in medication and those who believed in healing them psychologically. Shutter Island represents this conflict, but it always remains in the background of the characters and central story.
But the film certainly isn’t without its flaws, its primary one being that far too much of it descends into distended exposition scenes. There are two in particular, one coming at the mid-way point and another at the ending; both are overlong, unnecessary and treat the audience like a group of idiotic children. Scorsese is always at his best when his narrative has a dynamic propulsion, but he suffers when it has to slow or even completely stop, like in these scenes. Ultimately, Shutter Island, despite its predictability and somewhat banal take on the mystery thriller genre, is still a well-written, well-acted, consummately directed piece of suspenseful fiction. Even if you do indeed figure out where it’s going, it still makes the getting there quite entertaining. It has plenty of suspense to keep any viewer interested, and even if, unlike Raging Bull, it ends up pulling its punches, it’s still a fun ride in a classic genre.