Wild, but Not Crazy Enough: Scorsese’s Shutter Island

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from Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island
from Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island

It’s good news that somebody, let alone a director of Martin Scorsese’s calibre, has finally recognized the highly cinematic creepiness of the Boston Harbour Islands. The opening scenes of Shutter Island reminded me of school excursions to those islands, which have the feel of a mid-ocean archipelago, rather than land sheltered by a harbour. Thankfully, no school excursion ever went as badly as the one on the film. I always got off the island.

Having read the Dennis Lehane novel, to which the screenplay is largely faithful, I walked into Shutter Island knowing how it would turn out. The book was not to my taste, but it certainly could be the kernel of a great movie, just as Hitchcock delighted in pulpy sources. In between the unpleasant creepiness of the isolated mental hospital setting and the incessant flashbacks to the hero’s past there are interesting ideas about the fabrication of stories, and the book has a structure which could benefit from the potential of film grammar to warp time and subjectivity. To me, the novel was too dependent on its big reveal rather than the powerful atmospherics of the forlorn island hospital and all it could signify. The island and Teddy Daniels, the anguished US Marshal searching the island for an escaped patient/prisoner, are the two warring protagonists, and neither really came to life in the book.

Scorsese’s interest in cinematic subjectivity, which perhaps began with the first shot of Mean Streets, has continued throughout his career and it is worth considering his latest as one of the group of “Subjective Scorseses” stretching from Taxi Driver to Kundun to The Aviator. These films are not just character portraits, Scorsese’s recognizable style grew out of the need to express a subjective point of view, not least his own as a maker of personal films in a difficult Hollywood. Most recognizable is his interest in voice over, which is absent in Shutter Island, and which perhaps reached its zenith in Casino, in which three protagonists fight over the narration as well as everything else.

Shutter Island’s strangeness makes it stand out even in a list as diverse as the films named above. Above all it is a thriller, and its success at the box office testifies that it is a satisfyingly tense one. It is also the furthest Scorsese has pushed his interest in subjectivity. Leonardo DiCaprio, playing the US Marshall, is in virtually every scene and is as good as I have ever seen him. He has the bulk of a real 1950s man. He is gray-skinned, patchily shaven, squint-eyed and so tired and sick looking that you really start to worry about him. DiCaprio owns us for the duration of the film. We have no choice but to rely on his point of view, however ragged it becomes. I suspect a lot of his scenes in the film were nailed on takes twenty or more.

More than any other Scorsese film I can think of, even Taxi Driver, Shutter Island is dominated by its lead performance. The rest of the cast, Ben Kinsgley especially, is excellent, but in thinking back on the film’s alienating strangeness, it seems to me the pace and structure of the film as a whole have suffered. There are a series of strong scenes; like Hawks, Hitchcock or Ford, Scorsese has become a master of building tension and revealing character through a simple shot-reverse shot pattern. He and his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, are often able to cut very fast while maintaining continuity and a sense of flow.

The problem with the film is that the scenes do not flow into sequences. While The Departed managed to maintain its gleeful and violent tempo for the distance, Shutter Island develops an unwieldy rhythm, partly due to its faithfulness to the source novel, in which series of long “explanatory” dialogue scenes are intercut with increasingly frequent flashbacks. There is a choppiness about Shutter Island which is at odds with what is best in Scorsese. He is a director who recognizes that films are made of sequences as much as scenes and his best sequences are unparalleled. Think of the “I was going to be busy all day” sequence in Goodfellas. In that sustained and thrilling bout of liquid filmmaking, every element which defines cinema—image, sound, editing, performance—works as a single organism. There is suspense, humour, dread; in a word, as Sam Fuller might say, emotion. Like a Frank Gehry facade, Scorsese’s sequences are capable of flowing when flow is most difficult; as Ray Liotta stirs the tomato sauce and buys guns, Scorsese forcefully picks up the film and bends it to his wishes.

Part of the problem in Shutter Island, and in some of Scorsese’s other films of the past ten years, is excessive length. Though he has never come close to making a bad film, I admit to a niggling detachment from his output since 1999’s underrated Bringing Out the Dead. Certainly Gangs of New York, which must have been agony to make, is, along with Mean Streets, Raging Bull and perhaps Goodfellas, a major turning point in his career. Shutter Island has the shortest running time of any of his recent films, but it is still a ninety minute thriller which runs for two hours twenty minutes. Although the length of Scorsese’s recent work dovetails with the general bloating of the American movie in the past ten years, for a director as viscerally kinetic as Scorsese, length is an obstacle to be overcome.

Though Shutter Island is, and this is no small praise, very well made, as in Gangs of New York, The Aviator and, to a lesser extent, The Departed, it feels as though something important and messy has been held back or covered up. To take one example, there is a strange literal-mindedness and conventionality to DiCaprio’s many flashbacks, hallucinations and dreams. When there is blood, there is a lot of blood and we look at it for a long time; when he dreams, the dream begins with him closing his eyes and ends with him waking in a cold sweat. Though Shutter Island is powerful and has lingered in my head in a not entirely pleasant way, I feel another and even more disturbing layer of self-awareness is missing in the film. There is layer of narrative tension between Scorsese, the director of DiCaprio, and DiCaprio, the director of the audience, which has not been explored. The script’s faithfulness to the Lehane novel is odd; Hitchcock would never have so venerated his source; he would have alloyed it with shinier metals and bent it to his wishes. Like the master of suspense, Scorsese is a maker of big movies now, and as much as I might have a passing desire to see him make smaller, more personal films, it seems unreasonable to expect a serious American filmmaker, having won the best toys in the toy store, to give them up without a fight.

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