Those a little perplexed by the sheer pulpy excess of Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning The Departed (2006), should remember that, like Quentin Tarantino after him, the director’s famously encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema has long placed on equal par the genre picture and the art-house classic, a democracy in which Gun Crazy (1950) is as important an influence as Ossessione (1943). One ought not to forget either that Scorsese was a graduate of the Roger Corman film school, an early brush with exploitation which can be betrayed to varying extents in his output ever since Boxcar Bertha (1972) gave rise to Mean Streets (1973). The problem is, running to an overlong 138 minutes Shutter Island if anything needed to be a little more Corman and less Cimino.
The year is 1953, and we begin aboard a ferry carrying US Marshal Teddy Daniels and his newly-appointed investigative partner Chuck Aule, who together have been sent to the small titular island, home to the Ashecliff Hospital for the criminally insane, a forbidding place established from these early shots aboard the boat – the hold all clanking chains and handcuffs – to their arrival through the high-security electric-fenced perimeter of the hospital. On arrival, the hospital’s head psychiatrist, the charming, smooth-talking Dr. John Cawley, explains that it is his liberal-minded philosophy that these dangerous prisoners may be ‘cured’ of their mental traumas by allowing them to act out their anxieties rather than by punishing and medicating them; this awakens hostility from Teddy, who in a series of dreamlike flashbacks recalls not only his wife’s death in an arson house fire but also his presence as a soldier at the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, dually haunted by the ghosts of a loved one and strangers he was unable to save from mechanised slaughter.
Ostensibly Teddy and Chuck’s mission is to investigate the mysterious disappearance of one of Ashecliff’s patients/inmates, Rachel Solando, who had been locked up for the brutal drowning of her three young children. But just how did she manage to escape from her locked cell, barred at the windows? Within the opening reels, this is the apparent central mystery, but slowly the detective story mutates as it transpires that Teddy has other, hidden reasons for coming to the island: not only has he reason to believe that his wife’s killer has been sent there, but he also suspects that the facility has been conducting mind experiments on its inmates. Thus, he is conflicted between two motivations: on the one hand avenging his wife’s death, and on the other crusading against what he sees as the appropriation of the Nazi thought experiments he fought against during the war.
This is only the piano terra of what quickly becomes a complicated Memento-like (2000) house of cards representing the fractured psychology of Marshal Daniels. Communicating to the ghost of his dead wife, who seems to be urging him on in his investigations, albeit then decaying into a pile of ash, he begins to question the trustworthiness of all around him – inmates, staff, even his own partner. Most of all, he is suspicious of Dr. Jeremiah Naehring, the German ex-pat colleague of Cawley’s who seems to suggest a link to the wartime experiences he is unable to forget. But can he believe even himself, led by ghosts of his own memories?
Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, whose comparably more sober Mystic River (2003) and Gone, Baby, Gone (2007) have also been filmed, Shutter Island is the kind of story which translates very well to the visual medium, and Scorsese employs a full gamut of camera techniques in order to send us hurtling around the menacing prison’s corridors and its surrounding windswept island in a whirlwind fashion. Hitchcock seems the key reference point in terms of storytelling, reflected most obviously in the Bernard Herrmann-esque score as well as visual nods to Vertigo (1957) and Psycho (1960), but one can’t help but think that Hitch might have trimmed the running time down by a reel or so; the drawn-out ending in particular makes the full 138 minutes feel just too long, and the sheer obviousness of the big plot twist makes it seem as if Scorsese is showing his cards more than a little too early.
The length issue is reflective of the film’s essence as a hybrid of detective story and psychological autopsy, and the film ends up feeling a strangely schizophrenic mish-mash of visual styles. The opening reels feel strangely old-fashioned, an homage to the classic post-war film noir tradition right down to the apparent use of very retro-looking back-projection placing the island ferry atop the ocean waves, and veteran DP Robert Richardson’s camera and lighting take ecstatic delight in showing the period mise en scene. And yet despite the hokey, over-expositionary dialogue, there is an unease about those early scenes, largely thanks to some odd jump-cut editing and subtle use of minor temporal discontinuities to set the viewer on alert that all is certainly not what it seems. The dream sequences, though, are pure Tarkovsky, undercranked and littered with symbols and associative elemental imagery, with a feeling of po-faced unease that occasionally threatens to turn into slapstick.
The pastiche of film noir tropes is unsurprising for the director whose films always seem so enamoured with cinema history, but the evocation of the Holocaust seems flippant, almost frivolous, to what is ultimately an insubstantial story, if an entertaining one. Of course, noir owed its existence to World War Two, not only as a reaction to its horrors but as a product of its resultant immigration to Hollywood of the likes of Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, and it is certainly possible to use experience of it to great achieve great empathic effect – see how Nabokov subverted the apparent comedy of Pnin with the haunting tragedy of Buchenwald – yet here it feels like Scorsese is unable convincingly to work it in to the story, at least with the unresponsive DiCaprio as lead. Not that DiCaprio is bad – in fact he seems well suited to this period hokum – but for a film which about interior psychology his performance is simply too opaque.
For its problems, Shutter Island remains enjoyably entertaining, and a film unashamedly soaked in love for the history and traditions of cinema, and for the sheer craft of old-fashioned thriller filmcraft. Still, it is an obtuse, awkward work, and will surely baffle many more than it will delight, but this seems to be where its charm lies; file under ‘personal projects’ alongside The Aviator (2004) and Kundun (1997). Maybe this is where the true value of his work has resided all along.