Like all Martin Scorsese pictures, his newest, Shutter Island, is chiefly about sin. How it helps to define the human condition, how it affects the protagonist in life and the detrimental value it has to the eternal soul. Catholic filmmakers have varying ways of addressing sin and most pointedly guilt—but Scorsese's pictures are laced with it like a poisonous substance hidden in a cinematic tonic. As he has aged, Scorsese's films have become increasingly somber in tone. No longer is the rabidly gnawing theme allowed to remain a largely unspoken undercurrent beneath the characterizations and their journeys but it has emerged, front and center, as the monstrous entity meriting its own blunt manifestation. Consequently, Scorsese's films have become ostensibly more garish, brassy and intentionally meretricious. Whether it be an aging Scorsese's shift into the darkest underbelly of city life juxtaposed with deeply religious iconography and sacrificial angst (Bringing Out the Dead); his personifications of brutish, unforgiving violence (Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York); or Satanic depravity and unyielding narcissism (Frank Costello in The Departed)—the latter of whom are each allowed to be viewed as seductive demons with Jack Nicholson's gangster explicitly uttering, Non Serviam, a quote directly from James Joyce's own embodiment of Satan; or the despairing madness of Howard Hughes partly viewed through the prism of masculine dominance over the female (The Aviator).
Scorsese characters have tended to mature with him. From the perplexing sexual frustration of Who's That Knocking at My Door? to the feral screaming and yelling of Mean Streets serving as backdrop to prayerful hope to the inchoate, raving ramblings of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Scorsese's principal characters now speak of the decay and rot of civilization (Gangs of New York), are once-in-a-lifetime inventive eccentrics (The Aviator) and judiciously quote Joyce and Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Departed). To take on two of Scorsese's mobster odysseys, Goodfellas and Casino, part of the fun is recognizing the punchline about two hours before the characters do: what they are engaged in cannot last forever, and they will, to quote Scorsese himself concerning the former, “pay and pay and pay.” Goodfellas remains a compelling gangland tale not because any character voices his innermost unease—here Scorsese's characters remain frustratingly standoffish and deeply insecure with themselves, telling (through voice-over) the details of their myriad crimes and underworld schemes but never letting on that they wish they had changed something about themselves rather than the simple, unfortunate details. (This is probably because the characters are sincere. Henry Hill's final address to the audience is unconcerned with forgiveness or genuine remorse. It's actually a pathetic cry of self-pity.) Casino, openly more grand and operatic as early on as its opening credits (again, not coincidentally Bach's "Passion According to St. Matthew") before which the protagonist is engulfed in hellish flame, operates similarly, though the visual and musical motifs are more robustly signposting ruin and damnation. The 1995 picture's tagline, “No one stays at the top forever,” is quite the understatement.
Just as Jewish artists become more concerned with Jewish questions as they age (for two current American examples, the Coen brothers and Steven Spielberg), Scorsese's admitted fixation on religion and his Catholic faith has found itself increasingly naked within his films. The Last Temptation of Christ posited the question of Christ's divinity as a kind of test. And that is most fitting: Scorsese's films are tests, and he is most comfortable in letting his characters fail because Catholic teaching demonstrates that we all fail. That is a most sobering realization, demanding stringent acceptance, and it is unsurprising that Scorsese's films have only become more consumed by this as the consummate filmmaking artist becomes an older man. With Shutter Island, Scorsese approximates the late Catholic, Alfred Hitchcock, as well as the horror “B movies” produced by Val Lewton. Scorsese produced and acted in the 2007 documentary, Martin Scorsese Presents: Val Lewton—The Man in the Shadows and his appreciation for the films shepherded by Lewton and directed by such noted stylists as Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise is heralded by Shutter Island. The film is a kind of melange of eerie horror, suspenseful film noir and psychological drama with Scorsese's own fascinations embedded throughout. Based on a Dennis Lehane novel of the same name, Scorsese stays only too faithful the the original source material (much more on this later), but provides the visual palette with a richly-defined atmospheric dread that seems all his own. Imitating the stark black and white cinematography of such noted directors of photography as Nicholos Musuraca in numerous “grade-B” cult classics, Scorsese and his cinematographer Robert Richardson etch a color scheme that is riddled with sinister shadows, unsettling silhouettes and the disorienting contrast between characters' flesh-colored faces and the gray, nubilous backgrounds. Almost jarringly, this aesthetic is bracingly layered under an epical emulation of the works of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in the skyward fantasias: in particular, a cliff sequence recalls Black Narcissus almost impeccably.
Shutter Island is said to be, at its heart, a genre piece, but that term becomes more of a self-contained statement of compromise than anything else. Scorsese is not so timid as to avoid linking his “genre piece” to Hitchcock, Lewton, Merian C. Cooper (Shutter Island's opening involving a fog-shrouded ship approaching an eerily beckoning island cannot help but remind the viewer of another favorite classic of the director's), Scorsese favorite Samuel Fuller and Robert Aldrich (the picture's specific plot points to Fuller's Shock Corridor and the comments concerning red-baiting and fear of hydrogen bombs from insane patients echoes similar concerns as Fuller and Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly). If films by those and other helmers can be more rigorously appraised than merely labeling them a “genre piece,” surely Scorsese's imitation of same can be surveyed in similar fashion. Scorsese is something of a cinematic extremist, which can yield diverse reactions in an audience when he is approaching an ostensibly more traditional canvas of content (all that has to be read is the basic plot synopsis and suddenly every imaginable suspense/mystery- and horror-tinged Hollywood trope presents itself: spooky island, hurricane, mental asylum, a missing woman, a possible neo-noir conspiracy). Shutter Island's opening is so deliciously old-fashioned—hardly a better term exists for it—with the terse, hardboiled dialogue with deliberate, hair-raising beats (Mark Ruffalo's Chuck: “All I know is it's [the complex on the island they are approaching by ferry] a mental institution...” Leonardo DiCaprio's Teddy lets the words soak in, squints as he wrestles with his cigarette and chimes in for sheer effect: “For the criminally insane....”). This is linked to the most shamelessly ominous, drumming thriller score for a major Hollywood picture made by an A-list filmmaker this side of a Spielberg-John Williams collaboration—here, Scorsese and famed songwriter and singer for The Band, first documented by Scorsese's 1978 rock show documentary The Last Waltz, Robbie Robertson, go all out, complementing the foghorn of the vessel in the opening seconds of the film with ascending French horns adorning Ingram Marshall's marvelously piquant and frightening “Fog Tropes.” The picture is bursting at the seams with ingenius musical inclusions of such noteworthy artists as John Adams, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Gyorgy Ligeti, Lou Harrison, Alfred Schnittke, Max Richter, Nam June Paik and Giacinto Scelsi, as well as Brian Eno, Mahler and Dinah Washington (for the end credits). Though scoffed at as being excessively melodramatic, the score and soundtrack of Shutter Island are no more inappropriate or distancing than the Penderecki-influenced Jonny Greenwood score for There Will Be Blood. Some critics have perhaps misjudged the extent to which Scorsese and his collaborators (Robertson, Richardson and longtime Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker) have gone in attempting to not merely imitate but recreate the pounding psychological barrage of sight and sound filmmakers of the era depicted (mid-1950s) sought to create in their time.
Scorsese has long named Orson Welles and John Cassavetes as two directors who inspired him the most. This paradoxical appreciation of the respectively robustly theatrical and the sincerely quotidian means of presentation has long found itself deep within Scorsese's canon. What makes Scorsese's more propulsive pictures rather outstanding is the way in which he celebrates the artifice of filmmaking itself. This most increasingly rare celebration of filmmaking finds itself compactly molded into each sequence and sometimes each frame of a Scorsese picture. This Hitchcockian adulation of artifice and artificial cinema creates an immediately more meta reading of Scorsese's films. The viewer may not be gasping when a police captain falls to his death in The Departed—he may be counting the X's and chuckling at the connection to the Howard Hawks gangster saga Scarface, which, with its sheer animalistic ferocity, can be seen as a clear precursor to Scorsese's own mob chronicles. Likewise, when Shutter Island's psychologically and sensorially wracked protagonist hurriedly ascends a lighthouse's spiral staircase, the viewer may not be entirely wrapped up in the moment of the plot's winding down, but rather note how the lighthouse serves as firstly ominous location, secondly as a tangible goal for the hero's journey narrative, thirdly as a thematic pun, particularly in how the mysteries locked away inside are to shed light on the protagonist's sacred quest and fourthly as the venue in which Scorsese recreates the final climax of Hitchcock's Vertigo, also about a deeply troubled man haunted by guilt and subconscious yearning to spiritually self-immolate while apparently searching for all of the answers of his own entrapping conspiracy; meanwhile, the spiral staircase itself is a reminder of director Robert Siodmak and his atmospherically gothic mystery The Spiral Staircase while creating the same physical and spiritual ascension to answers that Hitchcock engendered for Vertigo's conclusive movement.
Shutter Island's underlying theme resonates as a Scorsese motif unto itself. DiCaprio's Federal Marshall, Teddy Daniels, is, according to one of the more sinisterly-depicted doctors of the institution, Doctor Naehring (Max von Sydow, once again playing a German immigrant), a “m[a]n of violence.” This common Scorsese archetype wedded to the director's obsession with guilt finds itself at the center of Shutter Island, but in the case of the actual plot, serves as a kind of running joke (of the dark-humored variety) tying in with the realities of the picture's climax. Though some of the connections may be overtly artificial, it is not invalid to pursue what certain details mean in Scorsese's oeuvre. Teddy, like Travis Bickle, is a veteran of war. The wartime experiences of Teddy are narratively drawn out by the inclusion of a Mahler record. Scorsese's own flourishes are vivid and reminders for later on when the viewer attempts to appreciate the picture a second time, of how subjective memories truly operate. (For two examinations for how vitally subjective sensorial memory plays out when beautifully rendered through recent cinema, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Tetro are suitable excursions into not entirely dissimilar territory.) What Scorsese recognizes is that the mind thinks and remembers in cinematic fashion (and to accommodate the haphazardness of the mind, Scorsese fractures the backstory flashback narrative, since, unlike film, memory does not unspool from beginning to end in perfect linear fashion). A row of Germans is mowed down at the Dachau concentration camp, and Scorsese's camera follows in one of his usual tracking shots, as each guard is killed in nearly flawless right-to-left order (for the American soldiers). Is this an artistic flurry or commentary on the lack of realism? One of the admittedly enjoyable aspects of Shutter Island is that its plot, characterizations, usage of flashbacks and even the memorable final sequence stir debate and questions as to what is real (in the context of the film, since none of it is actually real, to paraphrase Brian De Palma's editorial on cinema) and most importantly what is intended. How much of the picture's facade is directly tied to the mechanics of the plot—sometimes rewarding (such as a couple of cute cutaways to a character who's “in on it” all along while being spoken of by a mental patient questioned by another character), sometimes dubious at best (the entire premise, without being too liberal in how Lehane's narrative resolves itself, is ultimately a less convincing and vastly more earnest variation on William Peter Blatty's The Ninth Configuration)—and how much of it is simply part and parcel of Scorsese's filmic auto-critique on film?
Lehane's novel is honestly one of his better offerings, and it is not difficult to see why Scorsese would be attracted to the material. The novel is intrinsically cinematic, with many potentially juicy visuals for the big screen, and it more than dabbles in Scorsese's aforementioned concerns of masculine violence and exhausting guilt. Scorsese gifts Lehane's clumsier bits and pieces with a gracefulness, and condenses much of what needs to be condensed: Michelle Williams as DiCaprio's deceased wife haunting him dreams is probably the most pointed example of both improvements, and the way in which Scorsese shoots her, from her demise into ash that blows away in Teddy's longing arms to mimicking the famed Vertigo sequence by panning the camera around DiCaprio and Williams ala James Stewart and Kim Novack. The beautifully-rendered interweaving of Teddy's concentration camp experiences with his long destroyed domestic life to the case he is working on at the institution in an extended dream sequence is disconcertingly jarring and authentic to the way in which the mind constructs epic settings for symbolic chimeras to sometimes run amok. One character has himself created a monster responsible for a most heinous crime. The figure is a grievously scarred, terribly ugly embodiment of all that represents wrongdoing to the character who has created him. The screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis includes cutting comments by at least two inmates whose insanity may make them perversely more sane than others: they are horrified by the reality of the hydrogen bomb. And the unnamed warden of the mental institution, played by Ted Levine, is given a chilling speech about Teddy's violent tendencies and the violence of God (exemplified by a devastating hurricane storm on the island). The warden's comment that he and Teddy have “known each other for centuries” posits the picture's weightier delineation between violent men on possibly opposing sides. The warden's remarks that the only moral order is, “Can my violence overcome your violence?” ties in with Teddy's earlier statement that the warden looked like an “ex-military prick,” reestablishing the correlation between the role of the military in conditioning men of different times in different wars like Teddy and Travis, to countless late '40s and early '50s film noir protagonists, into creatures of violence. (Max von Sydow's Dr. Naehring offers the difference between referring to Teddy and Chuck as “men of violence” and calling them plainly “violent men.”)
Shutter Island is home to numerous solid performances. DiCaprio is a pleasure to watch for most of the film, in part because his patina of innocence serves as a suitable contrast to the picture's generally gloomy mood and environs. Mark Ruffalo is perfectly cast as Chuck, and he is as adapt as any current Hollywood actor at playing roles in a straightforwardly naturalistic way. Here, Ruffalo reminds of an early 1950s Dana Andrews. Perhaps more importantly, in the case of Chuck in Shutter Island, a novel and motion picture leave a character underdeveloped for an important reason. A certain early scene in which DiCaprio eyes Ruffalo's handing of his sidearm provides the groundwork for their chemistry as actors and characters throughout the rest of the picture while touching upon Scorsese's more blunt approximation of the gun as masculine phallic symbol. Ben Kingsley as Doctor Cawley is a case of an actor being almost too well-cast in a certain role. Patricia Clarkson acts up a storm as a red herring character whose primary function is to provide a fairly provocative retelling of Plato's Allegory of the Cave while cranking up the viewer's senses of paranoia. Emily Mortimer has a standout scene that plays out quite differently depending on the context of the quantity of the viewer's acquired information (several performances, including a brief visit by Jackie Earle Haley, fall under this classification in Shutter Island).
Most troublesome is predictably the picture's protracted explanation-laden denouement. The voluminous, tiring expository feels decidedly mechanical, as though Scorsese himself is almost gritting his teeth at the alleged necessity of it. That the film struggles in aping the novel at this juncture comes as no surprise at first, though Scorsese does rebound with reasserting a visually rewarding aftertaste involving the final flashback's staging, and optically rendering the stinging reality of Teddy's identity. Scorsese's most disconsolate films always end on one last, final, excellent statement, and here Scorsese finds his best, most natural and memorable coda since The Age of Innocence saw Daniel Day-Lewis's Newland Archer found himself utterly forceless and feckless, unable to muster the slightest measure of resistance to his fate. Ruffalo initially steals the scene with a powerful head movement that resonates long after the final credits. Yet DiCaprio's best line of the entire picture is saved for last, and its evident duality plays to the ambiguousness of his condition as the film's running time expires. Is he, like Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, beyond all hope, wounding himself as surely over and over as the boxer piteously did in one of Scorsese's most iconic scenes? Or is he following an epiphany and pursuing it through a zealous martyr's conviction?
Whether or not Shutter Island succeeds in its key goals is up for the viewer to decide, as with any film, but at least the Scorsese picture feels like new ground for the filmmaker. The Departed was understandably chided by some as a kind of “leftovers” picture for Scorsese, and his previous two films were deemed by many as vaguely empty lunges at Oscar's approval for decades of great filmmaking (ironically, it was the “leftovers” movie-movie that gifted Scorsese with his long-elusive Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture). All of those films, however well-crafted, did not seem to boast much in the way of artistic progression for their creator. While Shutter Island is itself a contradiction of sorts—a movie-movie on the surface that is actually a formal genre exercise, an outwardly “minor” work that nevertheless recalls some of Scorsese's most personal works such as the ethereal parable Bringing Out the Dead—there is an unmistakable joyfulness to watching it, even if it comes with the knowledge that it is flawed. Whether one wishes to see the institution's various wards as Scorsese's meditations on Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron with its almost bitingly caustic manner in which each level of the asylum's heirarchy is depicted like medieval avatars of the church (which would follow with the film's essaying of science—psychiatric as well as physical, in the overpowering of mind and population with psychopharmacy and hydrogen bombs—as the twentieth century's religion); the fetishization of Scorsese's leading man for the umpteenth time (Scorsese's specifically Catholic linkage between the spirit and the flesh finds expression in both the ritualized disrobing of the male protagonist and also, as in the 1991 remake, Cape Fear, iconic Christian tattoos reappear in one of Shutter Island's more disturbing sequences upon the back of a Ward C “patient”); to Scorsese's establishing of Teddy's images of his deceased wife to correlate with the “Scorsesean” trope of the whitely “virginal” femme prototype (arguably complemented by the wife's pallid, almost ghostly complexion); to simply creating a film his long-ago cinematic shepherd, Roger Corman, would admire and be proud of, Shutter Island is at least indicative of a director taking a step forward and reaching back to his roots, all at once.