When it’s on: Saturday, 12 December (11.10 pm)
I am yet to cover a Martin Scorsese picture on these pages, which seems a ridiculous oversight considering his films are rotated frequently enough and there’s always something worth saying about them. Perhaps the problem is that many are undisputed classics, and all I could add is that yes, indeed, they’re very, very good. Personally, I would far rather cover one of the less screened works, like The Last Temptation of Christ or Kundun, because for me they’re really interesting pieces of work that are a little off Scorcese’s beaten track.
And then there’s Shutter Island, his 2010 release that harks back to his clear love for genre cinema, in particular Film Noir. It’s a great example of ‘Neo Noir’, with its 1950s setting and the typical trope of a hero battling personal demons that are just as prevalent as his actual objective. I think these films are fascinating. Whereas movies made in the fifties could do little more than hint at the dark deeds taking place on the screen, by now almost anything goes and Shutter Island can depict all the gore, nudity and bad language that simply was verboten back then. Sometimes that can be a double-edged sword. Scorcese’s remake of Cape Fear surprisingly lost some of the original’s power because it unflinchingly showed Cady’s nastiness in a way that the 1962 version only suggested, failing to understand that the ‘suggestion’ expanded the character’s power and sadism in the minds of the audience. You end up knowing precisely what Robert De Niro is capable of in the update, whereas the original’s Robert Mitchum was a proper bogeyman, with untold depths of horror lurking off the corner of the screen, your imagination filling in the blanks, and then some.
The other element of noir that matters here is length. The economical storytelling that resulted in films rarely capping the 90-minute mark was almost miraculous, something that has tailed off in the modern era with running times longer than two hours seen as quite normal. One of the major criticisms of Shutter Island was that it took so long in reaching its conclusion, to those clever viewers who ‘got’ where it was heading making for an interminable waiting time. I can understand that point of view, though personally I was happy enough to be swept along by the plot and Teddy Daniels’s investigation. There’s always something going on, for instance Scorsese dragging out the tension of entering Shutter Island’s Ward C for the longest possible moment because Daniels, the director and the viewer knows that whatever’s in there is going to be awful.
Shutter Island is an island in Boston Harbour that is the location for Ashecliffe Hospital, a home for the criminally insane. It can only be accessed by ferry, and the region’s frequent storms make it possible for anyone visiting to be trapped there. The year is 1952. Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a US Marshall who, along with his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) is investigating a woman who’s gone missing from the hospital. The patient, named Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer) is there because she killed her three children, but in her delirium refuses to acknowledge her crime. The trouble for Daniels is that there’s no easy way she could have escaped. The door to her cell was locked and Rachel would have had to slip past numerous people before making her way out, and that’s before taking the treacherous climate of the island itself into account. Meeting the lead psychiatrist, Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley), Daniels finds him to be less than completely helpful and ever so slightly cryptic in his answers. Daniels’s own state of mind comes increasingly into account also; he suffers flashbacks in which he returns to the Dachau concentration camp, a place he helped to liberate at the end of World War Two, and to visions of his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams). His ulterior motive for visiting Shutter Island is that it houses Andrew Laeddis, the arsonist whose fire starting antics killed Dolores. If he can find Laeddis and confront him then he reasons he’ll find peace of mind.
One of the biggest reasons the film works is that it introduces its horrors slowly. For some time, things go as expected. Teddy and Chuck talk about the case, the hospital is exactly what it appears to be. Certain facts are denied to the Marshalls, including access to the personnel files, which is important because there may be a doctor on the staff who can reveal more about Rachel’s condition. Then Daniels’s flashbacks start. He begins seeing Dolores, along with a pale little girl. The German psychiatrist (Max von Sydow) seems antagonistic , a red rag to Daniels whose terrible memories of the war make him naturally ill disposed to people from that country. And is Cawley all that he appears to be? Despite appearing every inch the humanitarian who cares for the welfare of his patients, there’s something not quite right, an unease amongst the inmates, rumours that the island’s lighthouse is the scene for experiments on the brain. As Daniels’s paranoia rises he finds himself isolated, even from his partner, and begins to investigate alone.
DiCaprio, who by now was established as a regular collaborator with Scorsese, makes for a fantastic Teddy Daniels. At first he’s stable and professional, but it doesn’t take long before the cracks start to appear and the fact he’s barely holding it together is reflected in a great performance in which his sense of guilt steadily rises to the surface. The next best performance is by the hospital, hardly a slur on the other actors but established as a place that despite the best of intentions is the site of waking nightmares and terror, all dark corners and gloomy metallic walkways.
Neither do I hold with the viewpoint that the film’s entirely about the twist and that’s it. A key speech at the end reveals everything about guilt and using delusions as a masking agent. This tiny moment, delivered after all the movie’s revelations have apparently been laid bare says it all about the motivation of the characters and the willingness of the human mind to shield itself from horrific truths, to show the thin line between sanity and madness. To say more would be to give the game away, but I really enjoyed getting to the end and never felt that the point was too stretched out. For fans of Noir in general, and especially those who enjoyed the likes of Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor, to which Shutter Island has strong links, it’s recommended.
Shutter Island: ****