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Shutter Island

*Spoiler alert - I give the big twist in the movie away. I like to think of it as a public service, but just so you know....

Shutter Island begins on a ferry bound for one of the Boston Harbor Islands on whose generally forbidding terrain is a hospital for the criminally insane. Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is seasick and just plain afraid of all the water he sees. He joins his partner (a consistently muted Mark Ruffalo) on deck as the two U.S. marshals prepare to land on the island so they can investigate the disappearance of one of the hospitals murderous patients. As the boat lands and the two men are driven to the hospital complex, strings kick in like Bernard Hermann on way too many cups of coffee. It's the first blast of a score apparently cobbled together by old Scorsese pal Robbie Robertson, mainly from a selection of punishing twentieth-century classical music. As strings are raked to a near hysterical pitch, one expects the Atlantic to start boiling, or the walls of the hospital to start bleeding (but don't worry - there's blood enough to come). I sat in the theater thinking, "I GET IT. BAD THINGS ARE ABOUT TO HAPPEN."

There comes a point later in Shutter Island where a flow chart would come in handy to trace the convolutions of plot. It's not just that the search for missing patient seems to meet with resistance from the apparently sinister chief physician Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley, generally showing admirable restraint in a film which would seem to offer him all sorts of scenery to chew) and his equally sinister colleague, the suspected former Nazi, Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), but we find out that Teddy has brought all sorts of baggage to the assignment which he has sought out.

Teddy lost his wife after he returned from World War II - he was among the soldiers who liberated Dachau, as we find out in some incongruously elegant nightmares - when a firebug set their Boston apartment building ablaze. So, Teddy’s not only looking for the lost patient, he’s looking for the arsonist, who he believes to be somewhere in the hospital. His lovely wife (Michelle Williams) appears not only in nightmares but increasingly in waking delusions as the story unfolds. At key points she appears to warn Teddy, to no avail, that he needs to get out. Similarly, one of the female patients being interviewed about the missing patient, grabs Teddy's notebook while the two are briefly alone and writes "RUN" on it and quickly gives it back to him. Oh, if only one of these characters had been kind enough to look into the camera and say "GET OUT OF HERE! DON'T STAY IN THIS THEATER - YOU'LL BE VERY SORRY! RUN!!" Now that would have been useful.

I can't say that I was having a great time, despite the occasional thrill, the pleasure of some good performances (especially a cave-bound Partricia Clarkson) and some classic Scorsese, blood-soaked artistry. But clearly Marty was having a grand time. Snowflakes flutter (Dachau), as do ashes (the burning building that apparently killed Teddy's wife), papers swirl in the quarters of a Nazi officer (Dachau again) while Mahler plays on a record player in the chaotic final moments of the death camp. Some scenes are clearly the result of location shooting, while others supposedly out of doors look curiously artificial, even surreal (this actually makes sense in the end). An extended dream sequence, which would have been laughable in less-skilled hands, actually comes off as pretty vivid and compelling.

Unfortunately, Scorsese, near his self-indulgent worst, lays it all on way too thick. Playing out his Catholic guilt and other obsessions with Robert DeNiro in the 70's, 80's and 90's, the director never seemed quite as lost he has appeared with three of his four collaborations with DiCaprio, Gangs of New York, The Aviator and here in Shutter Island. Having plenty of time to reflect during the film, I grew nostalgic for the relative restraint and narrative containment Scorsese and DiCaprio's previous collaboration, The Departed.

At the denouement of Shutter Island - and by this time, even the HUAC and the McCarthy communist witch hunts have been tossed into the shameless kitchen sink of a plot - Teddy is made to see the enemy and it is him. The entire story has been an elaborate role play to snap him back to reality. The lost patient, a putative murderer of her three children, is an anagram in name and replacement for his own wife, who killed their children, which is why the children, especially one of the girls, had begun to figure so prominently in Teddy's nightmares and delusions. Teddy actually killed his wife in shock after the murder of their children and has been a patient at the hospital for two years. Surprise!

The handy thing about such a plot twist is that it would seem to justify every crazy digression and excess that preceded it. But to allow that is to allow the director to use his tormented main character as a human shield for his own self-indulgence.

I haven't read any of Dennis Lehane's novels, but this the third adaption of his stories that I've seen. All derive a significant amount of narrative thrust from children murdered or in peril. And here we have the added emotional wallop of the Holocaust being evoked. Having sat through all 138 minutes of Shutter Island, I can't see that that latter element was in any way necessary to establish madness of the characters at the center of this tale. It's the sort of stunt that seems to serve the storytellers much more than the story. And in context of storytelling, that seems a pretty good working definition of exploitation. Of course, despite his pattern for emotional shortcuts, we can't blame Lehane for the death camp images that Scorsese puts on the screen. During one of Teddy's nightmare flashbacks, dead bodies piled and frozen in the snow look almost serene, almost pretty, like so much cast aside marble statuary.

Much has been made of the numerous film inspirations for and references that spring from Shutter Island. But frankly, I don't care what spurts out of the cinematic blender of a brain with which Scorsese seems to operate. References and in-jokes are well and good, but they don’t make a film. What those references - Vertigo, The Trial, Laura, Shock Corridor, and god knows what else – tend to do is gratify film critics, who are all too ready to consume the Scorsese brand name.

As for in-jokes, there is the casting of Ted Levine and John Carroll Lynch as the warden and deputy warden, respectively. Levine played the killer "Buffalo Bill" in Silence of the Lambs, while Lynch was the suspected serial killer Arthur Leigh Allen in Zodiac. But beyond that nod to two of the more memorable suspense films of the couple of decades, the casting actually works (as it does throughout; a lot of talent is put to work toward a rather dubious end here) and serves the story.

In just a couple of minutes, while the warden drives Teddy to the hospital, Levine shows he still has the ability to frighten. He says that he likes Teddy because they’re both violent men operating in a godless, violent world. When Teddy disagrees, averring that god asserts moral order, the warden is undeterred. He states with calm conviction that the world is about competing violence, with the strongest, the most extreme prevailing. That’s a very interesting, if dark idea. Levine, whose eyes seem to glow with malevolent energy, creates a palpable sense of menace, more than was accomplished with any of the filmic baroque that preceded the scene. It’s mainly a matter of acting and dialog. But how is a director to distinguish himself with just that? Where’s the fun?



  1. Damn that Scorsese. I read the book years ago, and really liked it. Haven't seen the film yet, but sounds like one to put on the end of the to-see list...

  2. Damn him indeed. I'd like to have a go at one of Lahane's books, having seen a few of the adaptations: Mystic River (liked it), Gone Baby Gone (very mixed feelings) and Shutter Island (can I get my money back, please?).


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