Freed from his own obsession with winning an Oscar (something he did with ‘The Departed’, his last fiction film), for Martin Scorsese ‘Shutter Island’ is a very purposeful turn to a relatively disreputable genre. After the epic, sprawling and historical ‘Gangs of New York’, the operatic biopic ‘The Aviator’, and the Greek tragedy of ‘The Departed’, this new film is scaled down to one man and his psyche. The setting, an island based mental institution for the criminally insane, smells strongly of B-movies. I am a big fan of ‘Gangs’, ‘The Aviator’ and ‘The Departed’ (though not without ambivalence), yet the thought of a Scorsese movie that is a prickly psychological thriller about insanity -not a safe pick, like an epic or biopic- was very exciting. So it gives me no joy to report that ‘Shutter Island’ is a major disappointment. An interesting one, but still, Scorsese’s weakest film in a long time.
In his first three outings with star Leonardo DiCaprio, Scorsese has been accused of lacking the drive and thematic depth of his earlier films. To what extent that is true is debatable, but ‘Shutter Island’ is squarely in Scorsese’s thematic milieu- a person (almost exclusively a man), focused on one goal to the exclusion of all others, often ending in self-destruction. Guilt, attributed to his own Catholic beliefs, is also a major theme. Scorsese has said that he believes that he is going to hell for his divorces, and many of his characters reflected this guilt. His three latest fiction films have been accused of lacking the particular moral sense that typified early Scorsese films. ‘Shutter Island’ has guilt in spades. It is the purest distillation of two of his major themes in long time. It is also imbued with cinephelia- certainly a third major theme (one at the forefront of his recent films).
On paper, it sounds like it should be a home-run. But something went very wrong in the process. Even though this film is full of Scorsese hallmarks, it has nothing to add to the themes it features, it is resounding in its lack of exploration. Plot convolutions aside, it is an exceedingly simple film, one that reveals nothing about anything beyond its basic plot. It is not what I think of as a Martin Scorsese film -engaged, curious, passionate (even when perhaps misguided)- but a “Martin Scorsese” film. It sounds like one, but no one is home- it’s a hollow film, made by a filmmaker too involved in the minutia of making a little horror morality tale to pay attention to the soul. Of course, Scorsese being an enormously talented filmmaker, the things he does pay attention to- the plot and his trapping- generally work as well as they probably could.
The film opens with Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio), a US Marshall on his way to Ashecliff Hospital for the criminally insane, which is on an island accessible only by ferry. Teddy is going there to investigate the disappearance of female inmate. On the ferry, Daniels meets Chuck, a Marshall assigned to assist him. Their first conversation feels like it’s out of a 50’s noir, and is shot similarly- the lighting is unnaturally bright for an overcast day at sea, and the background is subtly unconvincing -an ode to outdoor scenes shot in a studio in the 50’s, with unconvincing lighting and obvious back-projected background. Once they get to the island, they are guided by intense and suspicious looking guards to the guarded and fenced asylum. As we hear Pendrecki’s loud and portentous Passacaglia (from his 3rd symphony), the car carrying Teddy and Chuck passes through the massive gate to the fenced asylum, which bring to mind the gates on King Kong’s Skull Island. It also brings to mind another gate- that of a concentration camp, for reasons that become clear after spending some time with Teddy.
Teddy and Chuck are introduced to the people that run the asylum, two psychiatrists. Played by the dynamic charismatic duo of Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow, doctors you wouldn’t want in your head were they ill-intentioned. We meet the deputy warden, who is played by John Carrol Lynch, who played a suspicious suspected serial killer in ‘Zodiac’, while the warden himself is played by Ted Levine, most famous for playing the demented murderer in ‘Silence of the Lambs’. With an administration like that, it is hardly surprising that dark and disturbing things are afoot at Ashecliff.
Also not surprising is the impressive nature of the film as a purely visual experience, given the level of talent involved. As designed by Dante Ferreti, the island itself becomes a major force in the film, the most consistently striking and impressive feature of the film. Shutter Island is a cold, jagged space, sharp edges present everywhere. The lighting is dark and gloomy, punctured by sharp, fluorescent bursts of blinding light. The combination almost makes one wish it was a silent film, the cinematography (by the great Robert Richardson) and production design creating a tale far more compelling than the one the dialogue and music tell. The claustrophobia and dread that the visuals conjure are often ill-served by the aural aspects. At two points, the screenplay explicitly and literally sums up the entire film up to that point, bluntly robbing the audience of the pleasure of making its own associations and connection, limiting the cautious enjoyment of the plot. What’s the point of being stuck in a maze with a clear map?
This bluntness is a disappointing emblem of the sense of the film as an exercise, not helped by the music, a concoction stitched together by Robbie Robertson. ‘Vertigo’ seems to have been on Scorsese’s mind while making the film, but the music in ‘Shutter Island’ isn’t obsessive, hypnotic, or beautiful. It is all loud, all the time. Every threatening image is given a deafeningly loud piece of modern music. Scorsese’s taste and inspired sense of music use usually makes up for the lack of musical cohesion and structure in his films, but here not only is the music overbearing, it says the exact same thing all the time: BE AFRAID. No variation, no ambiguity, no subtlety. Just loud dread, all the time. The same Penderecki piece is played at several points in the film, and it is just as vague in its relationship to the film at the beginning as it is at the end (Howard Shore’s contributions to Scorsese’s recent films helped them immeasurably, and a score like his ‘Silence of the lambs’ might have worked wonders for this film).
These complaints, however, are circumventing the real problem. They are only the easily pin-pointed ones. The real problem lies in the overwhelming sense that Martin Scorsese -one of the greatest directors alive- didn’t add anything he really cared about to this film. Yes, it looks good and is well performed. Yes, the wealth of film references, obvious and subtle, literal and tonal, would not be there were he not at the helm. But this is an empty film, all artifice. ‘The Aviator’ is no ‘Raging Bull’, but what it is comes from a deeply felt fascination with a man and an era. This film is marked by superficial wit, without any soul.
Even though it touches on a number of Scorsese’s passions, it is resounding in its lack of exploration. An obsessive, guilt-ridden man is all that Teddy Daniels is. The figure is put there, without any real probing. What makes him tick is one reductive thing, neatly explained and wrapped up. Jake LaMotta lives and grows in memory after ‘Raging Bull’, Henry Hill in ‘Goodfellas’, Travis Bickle in ‘Taxi Driver’, Howard Hughes in ‘The Aviator’. They are characters created with love, with pain, with care. Teddy Daniels is one thing, one characteristic. Once the film ends, so does he. He’s a plot point. The fact that the plot is reasonably effective in it’s thriller/horror entertainment value doesn’t excuse his non-existent depth. Not for a filmmaker like Scorsese. He said that ‘The Departed’ was his first film with a plot, but at least its characters didn’t feels like cogs in a machine. The machine that is ‘Shutter Island’ may impersonate a Martin Scorsese film, but it is hollow at the core. I can think of dozen of things to like in the film, but they are all incidental to the dispiriting bottom line, which is that finding nothing but incidental pleasure from great filmmaker is even more depressing than outright debacles by lesser one.