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Revisiting Scorsese’s Shutter Island

There is nothing quite so much fun as the act of being fooled

Shutter Island: Leonardo DiCaprio and Michelle Williams - love neverlasting.
Shutter Island: Leonardo DiCaprio and Michelle Williams - love neverlasting.

Felt like making a return revisit to an old Scorsese friend and booked passage on a boat trip to Shutter Island, the film that asks the musical question, “Baby, why are you all wet?”

Shutter Island (2010)

Most directors of a certain generation started their careers in ultra-low budget genre pictures. Such was the case when it came to Martin Scorsese’s time spent at the Roger Corman Academy of Expeditious Enlightenment. After Marty screened Boxcar Bertha for mentor John Cassavetes, the straight-shooting Hollywood maverick looked into Scorsese’s soul and said, “You’ve just spent a whole year of your life making a piece of shit. Don’t you have something of your own that you want to do?”

That “something” became Mean Streets. And for nearly four decades since then, Scorsese has followed Cassavetes’ advice to the letter, give or take Cape Fear and a certain payload of dearly departed Oscar bait. During the press junket for Gangs of New York, Scorsese announced, “I’ve made all the pictures that I originally set out to make.” And over the years, Scorsese had told numerous interviewers that he wanted to be a Hollywood genre director, but his temperament led him down a road less followed. So after Gangs of New York, he had finally gotten around to giving us his take on traditional genre pictures. The Aviator is an efficient, straight-forward Hollywood biopic that, not unlike The Irishman, utilizes new technology to tell an old story. The Departed is an old-fashioned Sidney Lumet cop picture that resulted in an Academy guilt trip. Better than both of them combined, Shutter Island is Scorsese’s Hitchcock thriller, with equal doses of Sam Fuller and Val Lewton thrown in to fill out a satisfying Sunday matinee.

The idea had been growing in Marty’s head for quite some time. During the preparation of Shutter Island, Scorsese produced and narrated Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, a documentary about the revered producer of 1940’s ‘B’ noir-horror thrillers. Bedlam, the last picture in his nine-noir cycle at RKO, took place in London’s legendary insane asylum. (With its cramped, dankly lit interiors, much of the look of Shutter Island production designer Dante Ferretti’s fever dream set decor can be traced back to Lewton.) Ashecliffe, as the film was originally titled, indicated that it might be patterned after the Lewton classic. But at its core, the film owes more to Hitchcock’s deeply personal self-portrait Vertigo and Sam Fuller’s delirious Shock Corridor. (In the latter, a newspaper reporter checks into a mental hospital to investigate a story and winds up more insane than any of its inhabitants.) The Lewton connection is more thematic than stylistic. I knew nothing of the film’s celebrated twist ending going in. (Can a movie truly pack a surprise twist if audiences are alerted of its presence and told to watch for it even before they’ve purchased a ticket?) The strength of the movie is that it doesn’t matter — this is an emotional study dressed up as a plot-driven narrative. Like Lewton’s best work, Shutter Island is a melancholic mood piece shrouded in horror trimmings.

There is nothing quite so much fun as the act of being fooled, and Scorsese hoodwinked me 110% of the way. The dialogue exchanges between U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) on their boat ride to the Island should have hipped me to a cheat early on. There was something not right about Chuck’s over-familiar use of “boss” each time he addressed Teddy. And after the tenth time, Teddy’s forceful boasting that he was a U.S. Marshal began sounding like he was trying to convince himself of the fact. Teddy hits shore already agitated and feeling overly aggressive. He came to the right place: Shutter Island houses an elite group of America’s most dangerous and damaged patients, perfectly distilled in a 1954 microcosm that also reflects current societal fears.

All of the film’s establishing shots are perfectly balanced and composed, but the music signals that a change is in store. An aerial shot on the island, a skillful homage to Night of the Hunter, immediately pulls us into the action. Teddy and Chuck are there to investigate the disappearance of a female patient known as Rachel 1 (Emily Mortimer), locked away for murdering her three children. As the crime drama unfolds, we are further overwhelmed by a series of flashbacks revealing Teddy’s backstory concerning his late wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), and his military experience liberating Dachau. The basic narrative is as straight-forward as anything the man has directed, with very little visual panache to get in the way. Shutter Island doesn’t jump at you like some of his other films. Rather, it slowly draws the viewer in without once tipping its hand. As always, it’s Scorsese’s command of the medium that makes it all so fascinating.

In Bedlam, Lewton stocks his asylum with what amounts to the forefather of motion pictures: a deranged lawyer whose claim to fame is the invention of the flip-book. (“It’s because of these pictures that I’m here.”) In Marty’s self-reflexive madhouse, he casts Elias Koteas as a villain from Teddy’s past. Koteas is given 60 seconds to execute a fireside transformation from Travis Bickle into Max Cady. The conversion is not the real thing, but it’s an amazing simulation.

Female characters in a Scorsese picture usually draw little more than a beating. Dolores’ flowery summer dress soon becomes a blood splattered shroud. She’s shot, soiled, and incinerated, yet her presence overshadows the entire proceeding. Not unlike Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas, her time on screen doesn’t add up to much, but her spirit is felt in every frame. In what could amount to Scorsese’s most erotic moment since the tacked-on nude scene in Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, Dolores straddles her husband and teases him to put a bullet in her. As the plot unravels, Teddy finds Rachel 2 (Patricia Clarkson) hiding out in a cave. She listens to all of his questions, and her answers are worse than anything he feared. The head doctors are former O.S.S. and the island project is funded by H.U.A.C. Doctors experiment on patients with psychotropic drugs in hopes of creating a generation of Manchurian candidates. Rachel 2, now cast as a psychiatrist, predicts, “In fifty years they’re going to trace it all back to here.” Novelist Dennis Lehane uses the not-so-distant past as a metaphor for contemporary paranoia. (Having never read one of his novels, my only familiarity with the author is another horrific tragedy, Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Mystic River.)

Shutter Island could amount to Scorsese’s cruelest feature. I never once felt pity for the Goodfellas or Jake LaMotta, and the ironic twist at the end of Taxi Driver added a little more fun to match the horror. If Taxi Driver is a story about a crazy man making himself sane, Shutter Island is its mirror opposite. Structurally, it stands closest in line to After Hours, another journey through an Emerald City gone bad. (It’s always been my contention that After Hours is Scorsese’s pitch black reimagining of The Wizard of Oz.) In each case, the protagonist comes face to face with true madness in order to find their redemption. But you can’t really classify Shutter Island as a descent into madness: upon his arrival, Teddy had already been a mental patient for two years.

It wasn’t until Ben Kingsley, the Wonderful Wizard of Ashecliffe, asked, “Baby, why are you all wet?” that it began to congeal. Unfortunately, and this is the true tragedy of the film, what we’ve discovered about Teddy’s real home life is far more debilitating than anything he encounters inside the halls of Ashecliffe. Sir Ben is left with the unenviable task of breaking poor Teddy’s spell. He does so by forcing him to accept reality: there is no place like home. Teddy looks at the instruments approaching and knows where he’s headed. He wants what’s coming, and considering what he’s been through, who wouldn’t?

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Shutter Island: Leonardo DiCaprio and Michelle Williams - love neverlasting.
Shutter Island: Leonardo DiCaprio and Michelle Williams - love neverlasting.

Felt like making a return revisit to an old Scorsese friend and booked passage on a boat trip to Shutter Island, the film that asks the musical question, “Baby, why are you all wet?”

Shutter Island (2010)

Most directors of a certain generation started their careers in ultra-low budget genre pictures. Such was the case when it came to Martin Scorsese’s time spent at the Roger Corman Academy of Expeditious Enlightenment. After Marty screened Boxcar Bertha for mentor John Cassavetes, the straight-shooting Hollywood maverick looked into Scorsese’s soul and said, “You’ve just spent a whole year of your life making a piece of shit. Don’t you have something of your own that you want to do?”

That “something” became Mean Streets. And for nearly four decades since then, Scorsese has followed Cassavetes’ advice to the letter, give or take Cape Fear and a certain payload of dearly departed Oscar bait. During the press junket for Gangs of New York, Scorsese announced, “I’ve made all the pictures that I originally set out to make.” And over the years, Scorsese had told numerous interviewers that he wanted to be a Hollywood genre director, but his temperament led him down a road less followed. So after Gangs of New York, he had finally gotten around to giving us his take on traditional genre pictures. The Aviator is an efficient, straight-forward Hollywood biopic that, not unlike The Irishman, utilizes new technology to tell an old story. The Departed is an old-fashioned Sidney Lumet cop picture that resulted in an Academy guilt trip. Better than both of them combined, Shutter Island is Scorsese’s Hitchcock thriller, with equal doses of Sam Fuller and Val Lewton thrown in to fill out a satisfying Sunday matinee.

The idea had been growing in Marty’s head for quite some time. During the preparation of Shutter Island, Scorsese produced and narrated Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, a documentary about the revered producer of 1940’s ‘B’ noir-horror thrillers. Bedlam, the last picture in his nine-noir cycle at RKO, took place in London’s legendary insane asylum. (With its cramped, dankly lit interiors, much of the look of Shutter Island production designer Dante Ferretti’s fever dream set decor can be traced back to Lewton.) Ashecliffe, as the film was originally titled, indicated that it might be patterned after the Lewton classic. But at its core, the film owes more to Hitchcock’s deeply personal self-portrait Vertigo and Sam Fuller’s delirious Shock Corridor. (In the latter, a newspaper reporter checks into a mental hospital to investigate a story and winds up more insane than any of its inhabitants.) The Lewton connection is more thematic than stylistic. I knew nothing of the film’s celebrated twist ending going in. (Can a movie truly pack a surprise twist if audiences are alerted of its presence and told to watch for it even before they’ve purchased a ticket?) The strength of the movie is that it doesn’t matter — this is an emotional study dressed up as a plot-driven narrative. Like Lewton’s best work, Shutter Island is a melancholic mood piece shrouded in horror trimmings.

There is nothing quite so much fun as the act of being fooled, and Scorsese hoodwinked me 110% of the way. The dialogue exchanges between U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) on their boat ride to the Island should have hipped me to a cheat early on. There was something not right about Chuck’s over-familiar use of “boss” each time he addressed Teddy. And after the tenth time, Teddy’s forceful boasting that he was a U.S. Marshal began sounding like he was trying to convince himself of the fact. Teddy hits shore already agitated and feeling overly aggressive. He came to the right place: Shutter Island houses an elite group of America’s most dangerous and damaged patients, perfectly distilled in a 1954 microcosm that also reflects current societal fears.

All of the film’s establishing shots are perfectly balanced and composed, but the music signals that a change is in store. An aerial shot on the island, a skillful homage to Night of the Hunter, immediately pulls us into the action. Teddy and Chuck are there to investigate the disappearance of a female patient known as Rachel 1 (Emily Mortimer), locked away for murdering her three children. As the crime drama unfolds, we are further overwhelmed by a series of flashbacks revealing Teddy’s backstory concerning his late wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), and his military experience liberating Dachau. The basic narrative is as straight-forward as anything the man has directed, with very little visual panache to get in the way. Shutter Island doesn’t jump at you like some of his other films. Rather, it slowly draws the viewer in without once tipping its hand. As always, it’s Scorsese’s command of the medium that makes it all so fascinating.

In Bedlam, Lewton stocks his asylum with what amounts to the forefather of motion pictures: a deranged lawyer whose claim to fame is the invention of the flip-book. (“It’s because of these pictures that I’m here.”) In Marty’s self-reflexive madhouse, he casts Elias Koteas as a villain from Teddy’s past. Koteas is given 60 seconds to execute a fireside transformation from Travis Bickle into Max Cady. The conversion is not the real thing, but it’s an amazing simulation.

Female characters in a Scorsese picture usually draw little more than a beating. Dolores’ flowery summer dress soon becomes a blood splattered shroud. She’s shot, soiled, and incinerated, yet her presence overshadows the entire proceeding. Not unlike Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas, her time on screen doesn’t add up to much, but her spirit is felt in every frame. In what could amount to Scorsese’s most erotic moment since the tacked-on nude scene in Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, Dolores straddles her husband and teases him to put a bullet in her. As the plot unravels, Teddy finds Rachel 2 (Patricia Clarkson) hiding out in a cave. She listens to all of his questions, and her answers are worse than anything he feared. The head doctors are former O.S.S. and the island project is funded by H.U.A.C. Doctors experiment on patients with psychotropic drugs in hopes of creating a generation of Manchurian candidates. Rachel 2, now cast as a psychiatrist, predicts, “In fifty years they’re going to trace it all back to here.” Novelist Dennis Lehane uses the not-so-distant past as a metaphor for contemporary paranoia. (Having never read one of his novels, my only familiarity with the author is another horrific tragedy, Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Mystic River.)

Shutter Island could amount to Scorsese’s cruelest feature. I never once felt pity for the Goodfellas or Jake LaMotta, and the ironic twist at the end of Taxi Driver added a little more fun to match the horror. If Taxi Driver is a story about a crazy man making himself sane, Shutter Island is its mirror opposite. Structurally, it stands closest in line to After Hours, another journey through an Emerald City gone bad. (It’s always been my contention that After Hours is Scorsese’s pitch black reimagining of The Wizard of Oz.) In each case, the protagonist comes face to face with true madness in order to find their redemption. But you can’t really classify Shutter Island as a descent into madness: upon his arrival, Teddy had already been a mental patient for two years.

It wasn’t until Ben Kingsley, the Wonderful Wizard of Ashecliffe, asked, “Baby, why are you all wet?” that it began to congeal. Unfortunately, and this is the true tragedy of the film, what we’ve discovered about Teddy’s real home life is far more debilitating than anything he encounters inside the halls of Ashecliffe. Sir Ben is left with the unenviable task of breaking poor Teddy’s spell. He does so by forcing him to accept reality: there is no place like home. Teddy looks at the instruments approaching and knows where he’s headed. He wants what’s coming, and considering what he’s been through, who wouldn’t?

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