Thursday, March 4, 2010

Shutter Island (2010) A Film by Martin Scorsese

(DISCLAIMER: It would be absolutely silly to read this essay without having seen the film yet. Needless to say however, there will be spoilers, and very significant ones at that. I promise that this essay will ruin your experience of the film if you read it beforehand.)

With Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese has made his best, most distinctly personal film since 2002's Gangs of New York. It's a bold, reflexive work that puts conventions to their greatest possible use while simultaneously expanding upon them, and it's the most enjoyable big-movie experience I've had in a theater since Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2007). On the other hand, the film has received a passionately polarized mix of responses in the blogosphere, and ironically, the flaws that many well-respected bloggers point to are ones that I do not vehemently disagree with. Shutter Island does occasionally luxuriate in too many red herrings, moments that retrospectively are insignificant in the grand scheme of things. It also has a denouement that smacks of didacticism and only for a moment threatens to compress a harrowing cinematic yarn into the constraints of a cheap storytelling gimmick. I do, however, object strongly to the popular critical contention that the film too often confuses what it is and what it should be. Why should Shutter Island be anything? It doesn't know whether it should be a drama or a mystery? That's absurd. I say it actively blends these genres, becoming a collage.

Martin Scorsese has never been a director to firmly cement his films in an audience's preconceived notions. Naturally, I went into Shutter Island under the impression that it was a thriller, if only for the advertising and critical brouhaha surrounding it. But was I prepared to be confronted with a film that would subvert this genre early and often? Absolutely. Saying the film is a clear-cut thriller is as silly as saying Mean Streets is a gangster movie, Raging Bull is a boxing movie, and After Hours is a dark comedy. Shutter Island is not nearly as raw and unrestricted as many of his early gems, but it's equally confrontational; Scorsese is still asking striking questions about the self, about violence, about guilt, and about movies, he's just doing it in a way that is superficially more streamlined and accessible. I don't think it buries the gravity of his inquiries to know that the film is fun, pulpy, and game-playing. In several instances even, these seemingly lowbrow traits are inextricably bound to the film's themes.

Consider the film's opening frames as evidence of this very fact. Leonardo DiCaprio - a government agent named Teddy Daniels - is vomiting beneath a ship deck, experiencing a bad case of seasickness, before ascending onto the main deck to have a word with his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo in a role that flawlessly channels noir sidekicks). The two begin conversing about their destination, a remote island off the coast of Boston called Shutter Island where there is a massive institution for the criminally insane. A supposedly dangerous patient named Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer) has disappeared inexplicably from her cell, and these two Federal Marshals have been assigned the duty of investigating this mystery. Something immediately feels off-kilter during their conversation - the editing is awkward, the line delivery is stilted and caked in a caricatured Boston accent, there is a distinct lack of whipping wind, and most distastefully, we can palpably sense the scene is shot in front of a green screen. Scorsese's too adept a filmmaker and technician to allow these blemishes to grace the screen unmotivated, yet at this point any logical explanation for them is elusive. They simply exist, noticeable maybe on only a subconscious level to many, but the fact is that whether it is acknowledged implicitly or explicitly, this is indelicate filmmaking. This is also to say nothing of the fact that the scene's clumsy back projection could very well be a perverse reference to Alfred Hitchcock's films, which often had this type of technical inferiority even if for their time they were thought of as immaculately constructed.

Teddy and Chuck arrive at the portentous Shutter Island and get to work on their investigation, steadily growing more and more uneasy by the place, which seems inescapable with its thick security and layers of barbed wire fencing. Though the film progressively builds a tighter technical gloss, shaking loose elements that announce themselves as incompetent, the bizarreness of the opening moments spills over uncannily. The clear delineation of foreground and background also establishes itself as a figurative parallel to the shifty play with reality that starts occurring in the film. Oblique reference points - the well-kept office of the head doctor on the grounds, Dr. Cawley (an endlessly menacing Ben Kingsley), the Mahler spinning on vinyl beside the booze-swigging Dr. Naehring (another strong portrayal by the always reliable Max Von Sydow) - begin activating enigmatic visions in Teddy's mind, fragments that are at first mere ephemeral indicators of violence and trauma, only gradually revealing themselves as being linked to Dachau concentration camps and Teddy's past as an American soldier involved in the camp's liberation. There are also faint jabs at a romance with a woman (Michelle Williams) associated with heartbreak and tragedy. Water is the trigger for these recollections, and in his sleep, nearby drips induce one of the film's most lilting, visually dazzling dream sequences, a long dance of disconnection between him and the woman, ostensibly his past wife, in their old home that is crumbling around them. The scene recalls Tarkovsky's Mirror and is set to Max Richter's "On the Nature of Daylight", one of my favorite contemporary classical pieces - a divine combination.

All of this firmly implants the sense that something is suffocatingly intimate about Shutter Island for Teddy, something so fatefully bound to his psyche that the landscape both evokes primal emotions from him and reflects those same emotions - the island is witness to a violent hurricane the second day Teddy and Chuck arrive. Teddy starts having convincing suspicions about the institution being a vast repeat of the Holocaust horrors, an evil place where people are forced into being labeled insane and are subsequently exploited for inhumane testing, the biggest-kept secret in the history of human experience. It's a hypothesis that is preposterous only at face value, for in the context of the film Scorsese weaves in hints towards it with such deftness that it makes us deeply sympathetic towards Teddy, who DiCaprio plays with the ideal mixture of despair, hubris, and subdued kookiness. Yet there remains the potent sense of discomfort and distrust announced by the opening scene as well as several odd moments after, which hints at something more mysterious and unreachable beneath, something only half-validated by the unexpectedly sudden appearance of the missing woman who turns out to have an intense emotional connection to Teddy that he does not openly admit having an awareness of.

At this point, with the film presumably nearing an explosive climax, Scorsese has two options: resolve the mystery in a startling twist or leave things hanging on a note of delicious ambiguity. He chooses both. Many would likely object to this reading, because it is easier to push it aside as an ill-fitting backpeddle towards referencing M. Night Shamyalan, a dull way of wrapping up the story in a neat little bow. But it's a great deal richer than that, and while I agree that the dialogue during the reveal is several notches too pat, too explanatory in regards to the plot, it does not quite wrap up the mystery entirely. Instead, the revelation of Teddy really being Andrew Laeddis, a patient for two years at the institution struggling from severe post traumatic stress - which has been criticized for being hinted at too early - only introduces another mystery, a mystery about the human soul and its ability to disguise its own flaws. Telling the story in a more linear manner, one in which we are aware from the beginning that Teddy/Andrew is indeed insane, would sacrifice the powerful experiential nature of the film, the way that it manages to make us feel as delusional as him in those final moments which have us doubling and tripling back on our preconceptions. Whatever conclusion is reached by the roll of the credits then just infuses the preceding two hours of the film with multi-layered meaning, an a-ha moment if there ever was one. And equally, I don't think this relegates the early scenes to mere cinematic fluff and genre tomfoolery; they are loaded with magnificent imagery and clever narrative detours that provide indefinable insight into the troubled psychology of DiCaprio's character.

If structuring the film around a massive scenario of role-playing wasn't enough to suggest the apparatus of the cinema, Shutter Island embraces another level of meta in the fact that it is steeped in classic Scorsese tropes as well as tropes from classic films Scorsese admires. That might need re-reading, just as this is a film that requires tireless unpacking in order to markedly pinpoint the layers of artifice, delusion, and reality that are interwoven. One of the clearest reference points is Hitchcock's Vertigo, in its use of frightening heights (the apogee of Teddy's delusion is situated symbolically on the precipice of a cliff), female doppelgängers, and a spiral staircase that positions itself directly prior to the climax, a suggestion of ascent to epiphany that is immediately and curiously complicated by his wife's ghost telling him that "this will be the end of you". The film also makes stunning use of allusions to Kubrick's The Shining; along with the more blatant presence of ghostly reminders of Teddy's tragic past in the image of his bloodied little girls, there is even a shot of a red door being overcome by the torrential rain outside, a combination that creates the optical illusion of flowing blood. Of course, the plot's similarities have so many parallels as to be unnoticeable. Shutter Island is also the story of a man coming to a place he may or may not have been before, and who we find is hiding something that drives him insane.

This is not to propose that the film is a mere pastiche of references though, for it finds plenty of ways to become distinctly its own. The film's multivalent final line - delivered with sublime redemption - is fascinatingly continuous with Scorsese's ongoing interest in the reputations we face in our looming deaths. Just as Travis Bickle needs to do something, whatever he can, before dying to make his mark on the world, Andrew Laeddis must choose whether or not he can live a dignified life even after regaining sanity. It's a frank look at the process of Catholic guilt and atonement, the all-consuming question that means life or death. I found it terribly moving, especially after that intensely emotional flashback where DiCaprio and Williams have finally synched up in realistic terrain (the scene includes one of the most piercing gun shots I've ever witnessed, both emotionally and sonically). And needless to say, the cinematography is remarkable (the only exception being a few errors in continuity), with harsh backlighting that becomes one of the primary visual motifs - perhaps suggesting the blinding truth always behind Teddy's back? When the final ominous orchestral chugs bellow in black screen space, echoing the beginning of the film, and suddenly signal the first title card, there's no question for me as to the singularity of this work in Scorsese's long career.


Loren Rosson III said...

With Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese has made his best, most distinctly personal film since 2002's Gangs of New York... the most enjoyable big-movie experience I've had in a theater since Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood.

Wow. I enjoyed it too, but not that much. And it's certainly not better than The Departed (2006)! I was nonplussed by the twist at the end for copying every other drama where reality is illusion and "it's all in his head". On the other hand, I'll admit the dramatic performances of Leo DiCaprio and Michelle Williams make up for this to a significant degree. (The gunshot you mention caused someone sitting behind me to scream, which gave me a delicious chortle.)

I should point out the film is better than Dennis Lehane's book. Scorsese has a way of making lemonade out of lemons. Though again, even he could only do so much with what is ultimately a let down -- or cop out, if we're going to be as honest with ourselves as Andrew Laeddis could never be.

Shawn said...

"with harsh backlighting that becomes one of the primary visual motifs - perhaps suggesting the blinding truth always behind Teddy's back?"
this could perhaps also add to Scorsese's always present religious element.
It's funny you just put this up, I'm working on my write-up for it as well (look for it in a week or so, and there's another one being illustrated now that should be up within a couple days).
As usual with films that contain such twists (at least the good ones), a rewatch is in order. Was this review written after one or multiple viewings?
Also, I think another film, that Scorsese loves, that is referenced here is "Black Narcissus".

Carson Lund said...

Loren, I knew that I was making a strong claim in the first two sentences here. I wanted to stir things up and see how people would react. Truthfully, I do believe that; I was even considering saying it was his best since Goodfellas, but then I remembered how much I liked Gangs of New York. There wasn't much in The Departed that I really disliked, but if anything, I think that was the stale genre effort that people are calling Shutter Island.

I haven't read Dennis Lehane's novel, but just knowing the premise of this story, I can't imagine it would have much to offer. The success of Shutter Island is in the fact that it's so visual and cinematic, and because Scorsese delights in the pulpiness of it in ways that are typical of some of the noir cliches he's referencing.

I understand your qualms about the twist, but I would hate to boil a movie down to what happens during five minutes of the finale. To use the line many have written, it's not about the twist but about the ride. And for the record, I didn't see the twist coming at all the first time I saw it; maybe that's just me focusing too much on cinematic technique and too little on plot. I think that contextually it worked wonderfully, even if its execution was somewhat irritating. The final line redeemed that irritation though.

Shawn, good point on the backlighting, something I gathered but didn't articulate. I wrote this upon seeing it twice; the first viewing was visceral and the second was more cerebral. Knowing the twist I think enriches a great deal of the earlier scenes. The script has a way of sneaking in sly little references in the dialogue towards the ending, ones that I could not have picked up on the first time. However, seeing it a second time also made the weaker aspects - Teddy's conversation with the real Rachel Solando in the cave, with George Noyce in Ward C, and the reveal which posits that insane people have a way with anagrams - stand out more.

Unfortunately, I've never seen Black Narcissus, but I've received strong recommendations from fellow bloggers.

Thanks for commenting.

Drew McIntosh said...

Well if you won't say it Carson then I will: This is Scorsese's best film since Goodfellas.

I personally didn't care for Gangs of New York, and The Departed was enjoyable for what it was, essentially a fun genre exercise with everyone walking around puffing their chests.

To me the film played very much like Scorsese anticipated that people would pick up on the broad twist within the first ten minutes, and thus created an additional layer of visual and emotional indicators that makes the film far beyond a typical illusory drama leading up to a trite Shyamalan-esque twist.

Visually I feel it may be the most sumptuous film Scorsese has ever done; this haunted, gothic, almost surrealist visual aesthetic produced some truly stunning imagery that's stayed with me since I left the theater.

Great essay Carson.

Carson Lund said...

Drew, I'm glad to see someone is wholeheartedly on my side here. The imagery is truly magnificent, especially the dream sequences. There is one scene where Teddy is walking through a deserted, snowy Dachau that is particularly awesome, accompanied by a minimalist score reminiscent of Toru Takemitsu's work.

Adam Zanzie said...

You basically read my mind after you declared it to be your most enjoyable moviegoing experience since There Will Be Blood. Totally with you on that one, Carson. Oh, sure, there were plenty of great movies in 2008 and 2009... but there were no boldly-realized strokes of genius by any legendary, master filmmakers. Know what I mean? In the last two years, the best that Scorsese and Spielberg were able to come up with were Shine A Light and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Good films, yes, but minor efforts from both filmmakers.

Though I still think The Aviator is Scorsese's ultimate masterpiece of the last decade, Shutter Island is almost just as awesome. As long as we're going to use expressions like "it's his best movie since...", I guess I can at least say that it's his most visually hypnotic film since Kundun.

ZGDK said...

I saw Shutter Island recently also, and although I thoroughly enjoyed it, I'm not sure I enjoyed it as much as you did, though your essay did bring out a lot of interesting points that make me want to see the film again.

Carson Lund said...

Thanks. I'm glad you liked it, and I hope you see it again.

Andrew K. said...

Well done. I’m too easy on Scorsese at times, I suppose, he is my favourite director. I’m not as enthusiastic about this as you (The Aviator, The Age of Innocence and The Departed are probably my three favourite films of him, all of which are quite recent) but I did think it was better than the novel. The film is good not because of the twist, but in spite of it because it’s so well made. Scorsese is working double time (And sometimes triple) to make us not care about the twist so that when it does come it can’t help but feeling just a little stilted. I wished the film ended with that poignant image of Teddy’s memory and him laying the four bodies on the ground. Obviously the last few minutes (and that well loved final line) would be excised, but I think after that it just gets way too pat for me to love. But technically, it is a near masterpiece and DiCaprio does excellently as does Williams (who I have never cared for before).

I heard some strange reading on the film in which Teddy wasn’t crazy. I’m not sure what to make of it.

Carson Lund said...

Andrew, I flirted with a similar theory about Teddy not being crazy early on. It's a tempting reading, because Scorsese leaves everything ambiguous enough to go both ways. And I don't think either way necessarily makes it a more satisfying film.

What do you mean by Teddy laying the four bodies on the ground? I haven't seen this in a while, so my memory must be shot, but I'd be curious to know why it would be cool to have ended there. Would that have sacrificed that brilliantly dramatic scene with Di Caprio and Williams at the end?

Thanks for commenting.

Andrew K. said...

I was trying to avoid spoiler. I was referring to the moment where he gets his memory back (or so I'll call it) and sees his wife dead with the children and lays them on the grass. That entire scene is just so so so very beautiful...leave it there, the end...but yes, that final line deserved to be said (and my ending might have played out as a little too maudlin).