The style and manner of Shutter Island seems to leave the viewer with one of three reactions: a.) Exhaustion; b.) Elation; c.) Martin Scorsese, W.T.F.?! (The third option, admittedly, is not incompatible with the first two.) Where do I fall? Well, when I left the theater, neurons were firing like a blitzkrieg in my brain. During an ecstatic car ride home, which surprisingly did not inspire any patrol car lights to strobe in my wake, I was ready to drop such bombs as “brilliant” and “genius.” After a warm glass of milk, and a good night’s sleep, my opinion now verges on c.)—conditionally, that is—but b.) has not been completely displaced. Yet I think I have a good idea why so many reviewers have settled on a.).
A pair of U.S. Marshals—Teddy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck (Mark Ruffalo)—disembark a mist-shrouded ferry and set foot on Shutter Island, home of the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, a maximum-security prison in the Massachusetts Bay. One of the inmates—whom the chief psychologist, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), refers to as “patients”—has gone missing. Rachel (Emily Mortimer) returns, inexplicably and without a scratch. As storm clouds converge on the island, Teddy becomes increasingly paranoid; its jagged shores are littorally inescapable. The authorities have ignored his; they’ve taken his gun, withheld paperwork, and worst of all, the whole shebang seems to be under the sway of a former Nazi (Max von Sydow). Another Rachel appears (a razor-sharp Patricia Clarkson); the House Un-American Activities Committee’s name is dropped (it’s the McCarthy era—1954); and Teddy suffers from migraines and oracular dreams: visions of his wife (Michelle Williams)—who was supposedly burnt to a crisp by an arsonist who happens to be committed on the island—alternate with the suffering children of Dachau, which Teddy helped liberate as a G.I.
This is a gothic storm of a movie, and it’s awash with melodramatic touches and nods to old films noir. Yes, the Bernard Herrmannian horns honk at you like traffic in Midtown Manhattan; and, yes, the investigators wear fedoras; and Teddy’s subordinate calls him “Boss”; and the shrinks speak in slippery platitudes while wearing tweeds; and the inmates jump out of dark corners and give you the willies. But all these touches add to the dense, painterly texture of the film. According to A.O. Scott, Scorsese “forces you to study the threads on the rug he is preparing … to pull out from under you.” I didn’t feel “forced,” but found the rug perfectly sewn; each thread can be stitched back together. (It’s a rare pleasure to have thrillers like this exercise one’s mental needle.) Salon compares Shutter Island to a film by David Lynch—but Lynch’s meanings don’t conform to a logical structure; this can be reconstructed in a manner that is absolutely, pellucidly, meticulously sane. Is it a work of depth and subtlety? Well—definitely not subtlety. But does that mean that Scorsese is, as David Edelstein asserts, “farther from reality than his hero is”? Formal perfection is always a little supernatural. At any rate, I prefer this maniacal professionalism—Scrosese’s 40-year endeavor to blend opera with genre filmmaking—to that of A Serious Man, which was a snub to anyone who tried to parse the Coens’ threads.
In a film this dense and dynamic, consistency can be both miraculous and conservative. When Scott—whose evaluation is uncharacteristically tsk-tsk-tsky—calls Shutter Island “airless,” I can understand why: There isn’t much breathing room. He and Edelstein, critics whom I admire, fall into rubrics a.) and c.). I can only offer, without risk of being called a spoilsport, part of why I’m still sympathetic to b.). Scorsese is no stranger to madness; his work has always been deliriant, and his oeuvre is spiked with psychopaths. Taxi Driver is one of the best character studies ever financed by Hollywood, and one of the most vertiginous downward spirals. But while you’re watching it, you know that cabbie is a little bit loopy. Watching Shutter Island, you may start to wonder about yourself. The third-act revelation may not be entirely original, but I was so caught up in the cobwebs of rationalization that it had the bite of a spider. (Perhaps some willful gullibility is required for the venom to take effect.) Shutter Island doesn’t connect to societal upheaval the way Taxi Driver and Mean Streets did; or celebrity culture the way The King of Comedy did; or the Patriot Act the way The Departed did. But it might prompt you to examine your own susceptibility to delusion; it might induce you to think like a madman.