Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” a consummate genre exercise, is not—and this is for the best—another “Cape Fear.” Instead, it’s a thrill of form and function, a fully crafted exercise in visual style and classical genre legerdemain.
In some of Scorsese’s pictures of the past couple of decades, “Casino” being the example that comes quickest to mind, the effect of so much antic erudition turns claustrophobic, even out in the desert, an overlay of shimmering design and compacted footnoting of the film history that makes up the grey matter in Scorsese’s colorful brain. But even beyond its salute to myriad movies most of us would never have heard of, let alone seen, “Shutter Island”‘s asylum-set story is ideal for this treatment: claustrophobia, physical and mental, is made evident in every turn, fully, gloriously, inhabiting the haunted house of the mind.
An obvious and key inspiration that Scorsese cites is Robert Wiene’s 1924 “Caligari,” so it’s useful to consider “Shutter Island” as “The Cabinet of Teddy Daniels.” It’s 1954, and Teddy is a U. S. Marshal dispatched to Ashecliffe Hospital, an asylum on a rocky island offshore from Boston, to find the identity of a missing patient among the criminally insane. Teddy’s new partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), leads Teddy through an investigation that moves through the wards and across the rough island, but also its raft of ominous characters, including a trimly goateed Ben Kingsley as the hospital’s director and Max von Sydow as a German-accented doctor. The timeframe of Dennis Lehane’s novel (adapted by Laeta Kalogridis, who worked as a story editor on “Avatar” for James Cameron) means wounds from World War II are still raw, including Teddy’s memories of being one of the soldiers who liberated the Nazi’s Dachau concentration camp. It’s the era of the House Un-American Activities Committee, as well, and their witchhunts are invoked, and there’s more mental pain as well, with the migraine-prone Teddy also stricken with bad dreams about the death of his wife (Michelle Williams). (The resonance with the modern day is in how much of Teddy’s stress rests in what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder.)
“How do you believe a crazy person?” is a key line in the dialogue, suggesting as well, how do you believe a constructed narrative, or a seemingly unstable and thus unreliable narrator, or how does a marshal get viable testimony from a world that is only comprised of the mad and their controllers. Scorsese’s always been stronger on mood and character than plot-driven storytelling, but one of the great pleasures moment-by-moment in “Shutter Island” is how the mechanics of the story work: even when you think you’ve figured out one aspect of how subjective or objective a certain scene is, there’s another little bit that’s superbly crafted that fits right into the evolving mystery.
On the ferry to the island, the visual style is already off-kilter and disorienting, with a nauseated Teddy surrounded by chains and clamps and damp-mottled walls that provide nightmarish atmosphere, already the trappings of the charnel house. The first flashes we see of memories of his wife are typical, the first of two shots showing her barelegged in a summer dress, surrounded by sunlight, an apparition, golden, chiding, reaching to kiss Teddy, arch of foot and red-enameled toes, a gentle angelic smile; the second shot cuts abruptly, a half-second or more sooner than we expect: even memory is unreliable.
Cinematographer Robert Richardson’s palette is classical, heightened, burnished, with especial attention paid to eyes, capturing the flickers of thought expressed by DiCaprio, Ruffalo, Kingsley and the rest. It’s something missing from a lot of latter-day movies, especially those originating on high-definition video: concentration paid to the sculpting of light to express space, and to allow an audience to see the performers’ eyes. (These are not stained windows to the soul.) The other actors, not listed in the opening credits, walk a tightrope in what they reveal as well, but John Carroll Lynch, as one of the wardens of the asylum who’s on hand to lead Teddy and Chuck around the island, remains perhaps the most distinctive of little-recognized American character actors, who can indicate an entire character with a nod of chin, the slightest of basso intonation.
Operatic in many senses of the word, the score is assembled from existing music by Robbie Robertson, and leans very little on pop, instead drawing on needle-drops of exquisite gloom and bedlam from modern composers like Brian Eno, John Cage, Nam June Paik, Morton Feldman and especially a haunting end-title mix of Dinah Washington’s vocal for “This Bitter Earth” mixed with Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight,” from the movie “Pi” (another horror-of-the-mind movie). John Adams’ orchestral “Christian Zeal and Activity,” from the 1970s, dovetails nicely, too.
Terrible things happen within dream sequences that are boldly colored and inventively eruptive as the universe of Paul Schrader’s “Mishima,” and Scorsese’s evocation of movies from the era and from the noir-and-snakepit genres, as well as the superb Robert Mitchum mystery “Out of the Past” to the atmospheric work of producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur, never detracts or becomes top-heavy: going for baroque, Scorsese winds up with a rococo entertainment of glistening delirium. The claustrophobia is form and function: in the end, “Shutter Island” is about the life sentence everyone’s issued, until memory goes: sentenced to life in the mind.
“Shutter Island” opens Friday.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.