Scorsese returns to the scene of the crime with Shutter Island, a bleak and despairing work that reveals, like many of his greatest films, the twisted psyche of a man who has seen too much. While some might consider this film a step back for Scorsese, it is still familiar territory for a director who has given us almost as many madmen as Hitchcock. Our approach to this island should be like that of the main character in the opening scene: tentative, with the sickening feeling of having visited this place before. Let’s cautiously place ourselves in the hands of a doctor/director who knows a thing or two about the labyrinths of a psychotic mind.
The plot is standard potboiler fare; U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) travels to a remote island to search for a patient that disappeared from an insane asylum and gets entangled in a web of dark conspiracies. Intermittent flashbacks to his harrowing experiences liberating the death camps of Dachau as well as to the murder of his children at the hands of his wife provide a latent connection of paranoia and dread. DiCaprio is perfect for this role and reveals why he has become Scorsese’s go-to-guy for confused and borderline psychotic characters. The furrowed brow singled out in reviews gives the impression of a young James Cagney. If only a few actors today can convey rage and psychological torment as effectively as The Great Againster, Dicaprio is one of them.
Like many of the great films dating back to the 1970s, including Scorsese’s own Taxi Driver, the issue of violence and the effects of war on the male psyche are the themes of this film It is handled with the same gravitas as No Country For Old Men, and I see similarities between Lleweyn Moss and another Scorsese anti-hero, Travis Bickle. While Moss may not be an overt psychopath like Bickle, both men share a temperament that has been honed and hardened by war and seems equally attracted to and doomed by it. Teddy Daniels provides a slight variation on that tormented soul. Similarly, in The Last Temptation of Christ Jesus fights a war that is psychological/spiritual and that culminates in a hallucination that offers him a reprieve from the catharsis that he cannot accept. In the end, Teddy’s journey toward truth is closer in spirit to the tragedy of Oedipus, who tested the limits of his fate at the cost of his own personal safety and sanity.
If Sophocles were writing today, there is little doubt that he would have turned his tragic masterpiece into a horror film. No other genre can deal with the litanies of human error better than horror, and it is no coincidence that the genre has experienced a revival after a century so rife with them. More than a few critics took notice of the increased number of blood-soaked entries at Cannes last year. So to think that Scorsese chose to make this film merely as a divertissement would belie the history of great directors who have worked in the genre during times of social unease (Hawks, Bergman, Kubrick, Hitchcock, et al). Shutter Island takes its place among the classics of the genre and bears more than a passing resemblance to a few of them.
It is by now a common fact that Scorsese screened Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past for his actors before filming, but no one has caught the many allusions to that director’s other classic I Walked With A Zombie; both are set on an inescapable island occupied by the living dead. Scene after scene, Scorsese proves himself a master at conjuring the frissons of terror and minor moods that mark Tourneur’s horror picture. The editing and sound design are impressively nuanced and refreshingly old fashioned. The meticulous pacing and selection of music reminds me of The Shining, another film about a man who slowly uncovers his complex relationship to a place he only seems to be visiting.
A.O. Scott suggests in his review that fans of this film are simply deluded by their loyalty to the director and unable to accept the truth (i.e. A.O. Scott’s) of how pointless and contrived it is. I argue that Scorsese’s conviction for the material is no less personally motivated than his other works. We would be blind to dismiss Scorsese’s self-professed affinity for the horror genre—in the lists of his personal favorites as well as his own frequent attempts to make us shudder (Cape Fear). Even films like After Hours and Bringing Out The Dead, with their nocturnal shade and gallery of drifting, doomed souls, hover around the genre while injecting it with a gallows humor.
Shutter Island certainly relies on plot mechanics, but a second viewing more properly amplifies the note of pathos that brings the film to a close. Some people have pointed to this film as an indication of Scorsese’s decline as a filmmaker. While the mood and color of the film are definitely autumnal, I find it comforting rather than disconcerting to know that there is still a filmmaker who can look at the past, not with nostalgia but with horror, regret, and a deep sorrow for what could have been but never was.
Angelo Simeone is a writer and musician living in Austin, Texas.