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.