Shutter Island: A Hitchcockian Mindbender from Scorsese

In a key scene in Shutter Island, a character tells our hero Teddy Daniels that the beauty of running an asylum is that once someone calls you crazy, everything you say can be discredited. You might have had a life, a family, thousands of friends, but once someone can accuse you of being crazy, it’s all over. The focus of this film isn’t the usual jump-scares that inferior thrillers provide. Scorsese is more interested in Teddy’s ability to keep his mind focused on reality in the midst of some serious mind games. Scorsese is playing with the same themes that Hitchcock played with in Vertigo– obsession, conspiracies, pursuit of a blond woman you can’t have, the blurred line between illusion and reality, and so on. While it never reaches that level of brilliance, and isn’t one of Scorsese’s all-time classics, it’s a terrific genre film full of surprises. The only thing that isn’t a surprise is how surehanded Scorsese’s direction is– in terms of technical filmmaking, it’s likely to be one of the best films of the year.

Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a US Marshal seasick on his way to an island hospital for the criminally insane. “Pull yourself together, Teddy,” he tells himself as he splashes himself in the face with water. He meets his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) and explains that a woman has gone missing on this inescapable island, and they’ve called in for support. Shutter Island is run by Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), who explains that a woman who drowned her three children named Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer) left her cell as if “she vanished straight through the walls.” Violent cliffs surround the island, and guards have searched every inch of ground, to no avail. Teddy and Chuck are consistently denied information by those in charge of the island, and the whole operation reeks of conspiracy. Plus, Teddy keeps having very vivid nightmares of his wife (Michelle Williams), who years prior had been killed in an apartment fire.

Regardless of your feelings on the storyline or its twists as it weaves toward its conclusion, the undeniable fact is that Scorsese is working at the top of his game here, conducting a genre experiment with a technical prowess rivaled by very few living directors. Right from the beginning, he builds tension through slow moving shots with ominous lighting, muted color schemes, and a fantastic score that I pray gets nominated come next winter for an Oscar. Every frame is meticulously composed, and even if you had no idea who directed the film, there’s a singlemindedness to the vision and execution that you would be able to tell comes only from a director at the top of his game. He refuses to go for the jump scare, instead allowing for slow-building suspense that creeps under your skin like Hitchcock or early M. Night Shyamalan. Although the film does have a somewhat meticulous pace, it never loses interest or fails to be exciting. There are a couple of scenes so intense that it’s more thrilling than watching a high-speed car chase or slugfest. Note DiCaprio’s entrance onto the island, where crazy people lurk around every corner. It would have been easy for the balding lady to have jumped quickly or made a sudden headturn to be accompanied by a musical sting to make us jump. Instead, Scorsese removes the sound, slows down the woman’s movements, and focuses on DiCaprio’s reaction– he gives us a shiver which lingers instead of a momentary jolt.

The performances also are top drawer by all actors involved. Scorsese stacks his deck with terrific actors. Ben Kingsley is one of the true masters of subtext, and his ability to suggest the unspoken makes his character a true cypher, impossible to crack– you might as well give up looking for hints behind his eyes. His voice carries both warmth and menace at once… honestly, how many actors can manage something like this? Mark Ruffalo as Teddy’s partner plays the straight man to DiCaprio’s paranoid breakdown, yet he delivers an extra dimension to a role that could have easily been played by any good looking actor. Michelle Williams, as the hallucinations of Teddy’s wife, brings a sadness to her scenes, making them both disturbing and emotional– again, Scorsese doesn’t take the easy scare route, and the impact an actress like Williams has at making the wife’s appearances unsettling can’t be understated. John Carroll Lynch, Max Von Sydow, Patricia Clarkson, and in particular Jackie Earle Haley all do sensational work in very limited screen time. Finally, Leonardo DiCaprio… he continues to prove that he is the best actor of his generation, giving an Oscar-caliber performance in what is essentially a genre thriller. The final thirty minutes of this film contain some of the best work he’s done in his entire career.

The above points are all fairly indisputable. The acting, directing, cinematography, sound, etc…. they are all terrific. The story is the only point which may generate some controversy. Clearly all is not what it seems at Shutter Island, and you expect the revelations to start coming. When they start arriving, and you begin piecing together all the hints you’ve picked up along the way, you will reach one of two conclusions: it’s terrifically constructed, or it’s utterly preposterous. You’ll either let the movie take you away so that you aren’t bothered by the mild stretches in reality, or you won’t. The execution certainly meant that the movie had me in its clutches well before the movie started asking me to believe some of the wilder plot points, so I had zero issue giving myself over to the film. In fact, I found the turns of the plot, especially the implications of the final scene, to be incredibly clever. It’s a satisfying ending without resorting to any cheap tricks or cop outs. Then again, why am I surprised? With a couple of notable exceptions, Martin Scorsese ends a film better than any other living director. He always reaches for the haunting or memorable final image– Shutter Island is no exception. Scorsese has made Vertigo into a mystery thriller, reaching for a Hitchcockian feel for the first time since 1991’s Cape Fear. This film is better. Brace your mind for a serious bending.

~ by russellhainline on March 13, 2010.

6 Responses to “Shutter Island: A Hitchcockian Mindbender from Scorsese”

  1. We don’t always agree on films, Russell, but we are totally eye-to-eye on this one. Especially about the last half hour being some of the finest work DiCaprio’s ever done. A performance that goes from haunting to ::SPOILER ALERT:: heartbreaking.
    The only area where I disagree with you is the soundtrack, particularly the scene in which Teddy and Chuck are entering the grounds of the asylum. Maybe it’s just the theater I was in, but the music began to swell and grow more and more ominous, and all I could think was, “What the? Nothing’s happened yet.”

  2. I actually liked “Cape Fear” better just because of the shock cuts. I do respect the lingering mood of “Shutter Island,” however.

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