Perusing the various reviews and thoughts on Martin Scorsese's latest Shutter Island I found a lot of varying opinions among those I respect in the blogosphere. Based on these polarizing takes on the film I decided to needed to do something I rarely do and head out to the theater to see for myself what to make of Scorsese's film. Usually when something is this polarizing it means it's at least trying to attempt something beyond a mere genre exercise – which came as a surprise to me considering the film was advertised as nothing more than another example of Scorsese dabbling in a genre he was merely interested in only having fun with a la Cape Fear – and this had my interest piqued as I read reviews that claimed the film was an attempt at a horror film by a master, like Kubrick's The Shining; was another in a long line of Scorsese's favorite theme of guilt, a protagonist who is haunted by their memories; or, was nothing more than exploitative attempt by Scorsese who seemed out of his league with a story that contains a reveal not worthy of the importance Scorsese seems to think it deserves. Despite all of these varying thoughts – a lot of which, both negative and positive, I agree with – I really liked this film. I found it absorbing and hypnotic; powerful and affecting, successfully evoking the dread and fear that Scorsese aims for. I didn't think the big reveal ruined the film, I thought it added to it, and the only complaint I can think of is that film feels a bit repetitive towards the end; however, the aesthetics are so strong that they more than carry the viewer through the somewhat monotonous patches of exposition to create a film that has the energy and élan we haven't seen from Scorsese since Bringing out the Dead.
There are countless reviews that offer up a synopsis of the film and discuss its successes and problems. I'm just going to discuss some of my favorite moments and some of the themes and metaphors that caught my attention. For more professional reviews and better articulated thoughts (these are essentially my notes I scribbled down in the middle of the night after seeing the movie) I highly recommend the linked reviews above.
EXPECT TO SEE SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT:
Unreliable Narrator/Projected Reality:
I like that Scorsese uses the projected backgrounds as not just a nice homage to the noir films that inspired him, but also as a metaphor for how what we're seeing is just a projected reality…characters going through the motion of their role playing game in order to convince Teddy/Andrew (DiCaprio) that he's really a patient on Shutter Island. It also makes sense in this context why Ruffalo's doctor acts the way he does during the role play as Chuck, Teddy's partner. It makes sense that the types of movies these characters would have seen after the war were film noir, and so we understand the doctor's interpretation of what he's seen in movies, a kind of projection of this mystery world into his very real world based on what he's seen in film. The projected backgrounds beautifully underscore these metaphors, but they also serve a function visually…again not just as a nice homage, but as a way of displacing the viewer making us more aware of the false world/reality we're looking at while Teddy "investigates".
Andrew from Gateway Cinephiles says: "Shutter Island feels for all the world like a florid imitation of a Wes Craven delve, and it's only in the final twenty minutes that the curtain is pulled back to reveal that Scorsese tell, the strand of private Christian torment that stretches all the way back to Mean Streets."
I think that what Andrew is getting out is what is polarizing so many people who have been discussing the film. I don't think the reveal is necessarily all that bad, I just think that the reveal shows us that we didn't get what we thought we paid for: a fun genre exercise by one of America's masters of the cinema. However, Scorsese's use of pastiche again makes sense when we find out it was all in Andrew's head. These are projected realties that have a context in what these characters would have been familiar with at the time: war nightmares/memories, pulp novels, and film noir. Watch the way "Teddy" responds when "Chuck" asks what kind of prison Shutter Island is, and "Teddy" squints out the line: "for the criminally insane." It's all done gloriously in an old Hollywood and 1940's noir style. Some complain that Scorsese's use of these tropes "lessens" the power of the punch the ending intends to deliver, or "exploits" the images of the holocaust and WWII, but I just don't see it that way because Scorsese isn't playing it as a straight genre exercise…he's playing it as a distorted reality in the same way he did with Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.
Much like The Shining I also think Scorsese is trying to say that this particular genre is more flexible than the general public believes. Horror doesn't have to be zombies or stalk-and-slash type thrillers, it can be cerebral. As a fan of the genre I'm grateful for that point of view, and one of the things I love that Scorsese does here is his use of relentless ominous music to open the film (especially when they first enter through the gates of the island), or the way he references The Shining with the Ward C stuff, or the way I was reminded of King Kong and the feeling of doom as the boat carrying "Teddy" and "Chuck" approaches the island. The Ward C stuff had interesting moments with the lights going on and off (another metaphor) and moments evoking that haunted house feel Kubrick made so ethereal in The Shining. The film doesn't go all the way like The Shining does, but it succeeds in the sense that you have a master director here as well using some classic horror tropes to evoke a very effective mood.
Glenn Kenny says: "it's a chronicle of a man who simply cannot stop hurting himself, cutting himself open. And as such I found it terribly moving."
That sentiment above is definitely palpable in the first dream sequence where "Teddy" refuses to let go of the memory of his dead wife. Shutter Island is definitely less "weighty" as some of his other films about troubled protagonists who can't shake their demons (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Bringing out the Dead), but it's still his most moving film, and the one that feels most like Scorsese, since Bringing out the Dead. Again there seemed to be a lot of outcry about the tracking shot of the German guards being mowed down. I took it as a visual correlative that this was a nightmare, a catalyst for Andrew's guilt, which just keeps playing over and over in his head. It's something he can't shake, and that's why Scorsese uses such a long track to shoot the scene. If Scorsese was just interested in the visceral nature of the scene he could have shot the scene wide, or focused more specifically on Andrew shooting the guard, or pulled back and shot the scene from a bird's eye view. But I like that he shoots the scene with that long tracking shot because it feels repetitive (which it should since we're in Andrew's memory) and it feels unrealistic…meaning soldiers shoot the guards in front of them only when the camera tracks over to them. If Scorsese was going for realism every guard would have been shot at the same time, and again, he probably would have shot it using a long shot. The massacre of the guards and the first dream sequence were the two most powerful scenes for me, and showed that Scorsese was making a Scorsese film, not a genre exercise.
I also quite liked the Vertigo reference at the end with the use of the spiral staircase in the lighthouse. I knew something was askew when Scorsese has his character going up instead of down, suggesting enlightenment or some kind of epiphany was on the horizon, as opposed to a spiral into madness – into a personal hell – by showing him descending the stairs. Plus the location of the lighthouse figures to be as generic (albeit effective) a metaphor: the lighthouse reveals things, acting as a guiding light for ships. The stairway is also, as previously stated, a clear homage to Vertigo where Jimmy Stewart's Scottie also ascends a spiral stairway towards a major revelation that alters his life, and gives new context to the memories that haunt them.
A Minor Quibble/Conclusion:
Sure the film could have been Vertigo-lite had Scorsese and the usually reliable editor Thelma Schoonmaker put Andrew/Teddy's nightmares at the beginning of the film. I suppose I understand exactly why Scorsese tells the story in the fractured way he does (who remembers things in a linear way?), but I still think a straight-shot narrative would have more than been able to hold the power of those flashback moments and would have cut back on the repetitiveness at the end of the film. That is my only quibble with the film.
As for the basics like acting and cinematography: Watch the way Scorsese films the boat approaching the island, and tell me you're not reminded of King Kong; or the way Robert Richardson's camera 360's around Michelle Williams and Leo and tell me you're not reminded of Vertigo; or the way ghosts appear and reappear down eerie halls a la The Shining. Like Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds last year, Scorsese's film is filled with cinematic allusions that are bound to elate film buffs everywhere. Remove the Scorsese-ish subtext and you have a film that stands on its own as a rewarding visual experience.
The acting is great across the board, especially the always fantastic Mark Ruffalo who nearly out acts Leo in every scene they share together. It's always good to see Elias Koteas pop up in a movie, and here he deserves Judi Dench-type Oscar recognition for his brief appearance (eerily resembling the burn Cady from Cape Fear). So too does Ted Levine who nearly steals the whole film with his line: "If I bit into your eye right now, do you think you'd be able to stop me before I blinded you?" It's one brief scene, but it's one of the most memorable of the movie. And how about that ambiguous ending? Did he lie about being Teddy again? I wondered if the end suggested that Andrew would rather be lobotomized – erasing the memories that haunt him – than face having to be "sane" but deal with his past demons. It's a coda the 1970's Scorsese would have been proud of.
Marketed as a horror film – more specifically a genre film – Shutter Island is something completely different. It's about as much a horror film as The Shining is. It takes as familiar a genre as there is and uses the audience's familiarity of the beats and rhythm of a horror movie to its advantage, pulling the curtain back and revealing something that is much more exhilarating and powerful, albeit in a cerebral way instead of a visceral way, than we expected. It's a film that's interested in the horrors of the mind, and on that level it's as effective as any horror movie I've seen recently. It's a classical filmmaker attempting to art-up the horror genre with deeper subtexts than we're used to seeing in the horror film – as an unabashed fan of said genre I don't whether to be grateful for the master's attempt, or insulted by the very idea that the genre needs someone like Scorsese for validity – but nevertheless I found Shutter Island to be a total surprise, a film that sideswiped me with its power and deeply affecting subtext.