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Non-Review Review: Shutter Island

I’ll talk a bit about my more tempered analysis of the film in a moment, but I think it’s only really fair to open with my gut reaction – those few words that escaped my mouth as I turned to my girl friend as the credits started to roll.

“I want to see this again.”

Is your mind the scene of the crime?

It’s a gut reaction, but it’s a strong one. Particularly these days with up to three major releases coming out each and every week. It’s a wonder that we get to see anything once, let alone twice. So it’s a pretty strong reaction – one that I’ve admittedly had sparingly in the past few years. Don’t get me wrong, there are films I would gladly sit through over and over again, but seldom any that actively demand it in terms so strong. The last two films to draw that gut reaction from me were Inglourious Basterds and The Dark Knight. That is good company to be in.

I don’t pretend Shutter Island is cinematic perfection. It isn’t – but very few films are. The movie whacks its audience with a mean right hook at certain points in the film – one that seemingly comes out of nowhere and which the film lacks the curtesy to flag with tell-tale body language or too much foreshadowing. It is what high-minded commentators might call a cheap shot. In fairness, the film gives you reason to expect it by its very setting and mood – much as a fighter in a boxing ring can expect a cheap shot or two.

And those blows have the desired effect. They send the audience reeling. Some roll with the punches and some call foul, but that doesn’t change the fact that the punch makes an impact – the blow is landed. It isn’t choreographed or executed in any grand fashion, but to do so would be unfair. It isn’t particularly satisifying, but it is visceral. I’m in serious danger of saying something stupid, but I’ll discuss this element of the film later in the week, possibly in its own post.

Scorcese is still a master film maker. He knows what he’s doing. It’s stylish to denigrate his recent work or to run it down (such arguments start with a curteous ‘he’s still one of the best directors working’ before devolving into a series of less than complimentary comparisons between The Departed and Taxi Driver). I’m going to be controversial by being incredibly middle-of-the-road: Scorcese is no better or worse a film maker than he ever was. He’s just grown up. His tastes and desires have evolved and changed, his stylistic pallet has broadened. He isn’t making movies about the inner city or urban life, he’s exploring and playing outside his comfort zone – something that all great directors must do, lest they become too stable and boring.

Shutter Island is a film best understood as homage or reference. Reference to the classic RKO black-and-white horror films, before colour made terror cheap. Scorcese uses his director’s touch and style to layour dread heavy upon every frame of the movie. From the opening image of a boat traveling through the mist (or is it smoke?) to the labyrinth inside the old civil war fort which houses the island’s most dangerous prisioners, Scorcese wants us to be outside our own comfort zones as well. There are wonderfully scattered shots – hands and arms change position between cuts, objects move around the room, one gets the sense that the whole island physically shifts in milliseconds, becoming intangible and them reforming in the blink of an eye.

The story – a pair of “dooly appointed federal mahshalls” investigating a missing patient on an island-based asylum in the Boston Bay – is incidental. The narrative doesn’t matter. It’s about mood and atmosphere. The film is cleverly populated with a variety of seasoned performers in tiny roles – watch out for Ted Levine discussing the nature of man, or Jackie Earle Haley as a nut, or Elias Koteas as a firebug – giving a sense of unese. Experience tells us that in a given movie, it’s the face you recognise in a supporting role who turns out to be the mastermind behind it all – here Scorcese calls our bluff. We recognise most of them.

Leonardo DiCaprio works well as our intrepid investigator, uncovering a variety of unsettling truths about the island. Haunted by the death of his wife and the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, he’s a mess. There’s a story that goes around Hollywood that Martin Scorcese was offered the chance to direct Schindler’s List, but turned it down – as a Roman Catholic he felt he couldn’t do the story justice. I’d argue that Shutter Island is Scorcese’s holocaust film, as much as the material bubbles below the surface.

The instruction to “set me free” comes up near the end of the film, echoing the grim mantra above the gates at Awschwitz. There’s a suggestion that the way that we treated our own mentally disadvantaged – labotomies and shackles and experiments – is more than a little similar to what occurred in Europe in those crucial years. It’s denial that drives the film – a mother denying the death of her children, drowned outside the house; the denial on the part of the staff that anything untoward is occurring – perhaps echoing our own culpability in the attrocities. The fact that the West actively denied what was clearly occurring, that we somehow shut it out. There’s the same sense of shame that populates Scorcese’s piece – a latent responsibility that has never really been acknowledged. Perhaps Scorcese has approached the atrocity from a Roman Catholic perspective after all.

There are weaknesses in the story, undoubtedly, but that comes with the territory. The sort of movie that Scorcese is constructing (let alone the source material he is adapting) demand it. In fairness, he clues in his audience fairly early on. The use of a gothic asylum in the middle of a storm on an island doesn’t exactly scream of your average police procedural. Scorcese directs the sequences – particularly the distorted dream sequences of the horrors of Dachau – with perhaps more flair than he’s had occasion to show in quite some time. Smoke lingers from guns never fired, bodies lie arranged like grotesque ice sculptures and blood oozes from a stomach wound on a woman burnt to death.

Shutter Island is a very well put together film. I don’t have the audiacity to anounce it among his best – that will take another few views, to be honest – but it is certainly well worth a look. You’d have to be insane not to check it out.

9 Responses

  1. Saw it for the second time Wednesday. Well worth it.

    • Really? I have to admit to being slightly worried that it actually wouldn’t hold up too well on a second viewing (like The Sixth Sense, which just falls apart).

  2. Absolutely loved this movie. Well acted, directed and shot. It might not rank up there as one of Scorsese best but it’s definitely not a stretch of the imagination to think that it is.


    [highlight to read – Darren]
    What is your take on the ending? Has he truly lost it or is he aware of what he is doing?

    • Hey Castor. I hope you don’t mind, but I spoiler tagged the end of your post there (marked it white – highlight to read sort of dealio).

      My take (highlight to read):
      I took the whole “to live as a monster or die as a good man” to mean that he’s aware that’s he’s living a delusion – and one that will end up with him lobotomised. If he is lobotomised believing he didn’t kill his wife or allow his daughters to die, then he is “a good man”. If he admits that he allowed that to happen through his own negligence and indifference (and drinking problem), he would be allowed to live, but as a monster. But that’s my take on it.

      I have a post up on my defense of the ending (which seems to be getting a bit of flack, if you’re interested.

  3. Like I said before: I think on a technical aspect the film is flawless, but story wise it’s just very good, but that’s more Lehane’s fault than Scorsese and company. I read this interesting article, you should READ IT, I don’t know if it’s accurate but it does pique your interest. Even though *I* don’t love it – I just like it very much – I’m glad that others like you are because Scorsese is my god etc etc.

  4. I thought I’d put the link to the article. Here it is:


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