Dir: Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese has never been a director to shy away from madness. Insanity has run like a twisted thread through his best work, often embodied by Robert De Niro in films such as Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy and Cape Fear. Mental illness has already reared its head in Scorsese’s films with new muse Leonardo DiCaprio, with whom he has four films since 2002. In The Aviator, the pair took on the infamous recluse Howard Hughes and now, with latest film Shutter Island, the two take us on a journey into the mouth of madness itself.
More Spellbound than Psycho, Shutter Island is Scorsese’s most Hitchcockian effort yet, featuring countless twisty plot snags and disturbing flashes designed to keep us as much in the dark as DiCaprio’s US marshal Teddy Daniels who comes to Shutter Island to investigate the case of an escaped prisoner. Opening with Daniels vomiting from seasickness, Scorsese lathers on the ominous music and impending stormy conditions as the marshal and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) approach Shutter Island.
Without giving away too much, it’s 1954 and the two men are assigned to hunt down a missing mental patient who murdered her three children. Daniels is a World War II veteran, still haunted by his involvement in the liberation of Dachau a decade before. Also, his wife (Michelle Williams) has recently died in an apartment fire and once on the island, Daniels begins to hallucinate seeing and talking to her. However, Daniels has alternative motives for going to Shutter Island, where he and Chuck are trapped once a hurricane hits. Teddy not only believes the murderer of his wife is somewhere on the island, but the doctors who run the facility (luminaries such as Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow) are using patients to conduct top secret, horrible experiments. Using the missing patient as a front, Teddy is determined to discover the truth.
I’ll stop there. Scorsese not only channels Hitchcock but references Val Lewton in his Gothic sensibility of Shutter Island’s horror, Samuel Fuller in his depiction of madness and Jacques Tourneur’s noir sensibility. Beneath the trappings of insanity and majestic images of lighthouses, sheer cliff sides and pounding seas, Scorsese has created a psychological mind-bender featuring one very flawed hero.
Unfortunately, the director is unable to sustain the suspense throughout the film’s lengthy running time. He begins to add in more and more elements to confuse us. Is Daniels really crazy? Why are the island’s doctors keeping information from him? Are they really trying to imprison him before he exposes the truth of their experiments?
Perhaps Scorsese’s biggest flaw of all is the decision to explain everything in the film’s finale. Rather than leave the resolution ambiguous, which would have better suited Shutter Island’s tone, Scorsese decides to pull the carpet out from under some complacent viewers while confirming the suspicions of more savvy audience members at the same time. While this reveal does give one a strong impetus to watch the film again, it just felt too obvious to me. Even more pandering is a recreation of a traumatic event described fully moments before. While it is a beautiful and horrific scene, Scorsese treads on the redundant and mutes the powerful moment’s effect by talking us through it before showing us.
Scorsese has visited the horror movie before. His feral, visceral version of Cape Fear, is gripping and terrifying while the hallucinatory world of After Hours is not only frightening, it is darkly comic as well. Shutter Island suffers from keeping us in the dark. Technically beautiful and at times frightening, the film takes place too much in its own head to be one of those pieces of cake Hitchcock loved to talk about.