Film 2010 #35 – Shutter Island


Shutter Island (2010, dir. Martin Scorsese)
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Max von Sydow, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Elias Koteas

My immediate reaction after seeing the first trailer for Shutter Island was that it would be interesting to see Scorsese tackle a film with horror elements. After thinking about this for a little while longer, I realized he already had in Taxi Driver, a film I think of as an urban horror picture more than anything else. Upon further contemplation, I realized we found similarly paranoid protagonists in many Scorsese pictures: The King of Comedy, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and of course, The Aviator. This is why Shutter Island, while stylistically a departure for the directing legend, is thematically at home in his body of work.
The premise brings U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) to the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane located on Shutter Island. Rachel Solando, a patient at the asylum has vanished so Daniels, and his new partner Chuck Aule (Ruffalo) have come to investigate. Daniels is introduced to the facilities by Dr. John Cawley (Kingsley) and eventually meets the head of the hospital, Dr. Naehring (Sydow), a German who brings back Daniels animosity for the Nazi atrocities he witnessed during World War II. This combined with strange nightmares about Daniels’ late wife intensify his paranoia while on the Island and he begins to formulate what he believes is the real horror going on behind the scenes on Shutter Island.
What hits you first about this film is the score. The music was designed and chosen by long-time friend of Scorsese and former member of The Band, Robbie Robertson and he proves he has an ear for some powerful modernist compositions. There are elements of Bernard Hermann yet never played to the point of absurdity. Because of the strong musical elements they create a balance with the unscored moments. An encounter in a cave among the cliffs of the island goes unscored, despite there being revelations made there that would have received a crescendo of strings in an older picture. It’s those choices of presence and absence that strike the right balance in the film.
At its core, this is simply a variation on the haunted house trope. What sets it apart from a B-movie are the very powerful artistic masterstrokes Scorsese uses. The dream/nightmare sequences Daniels experiences, whether they be in sleep or in the middle of the day, inform the audience with the clues the investigator fails to find in the conscious world. I was particularly intrigued by the cultural paranoias of the day that seeped into the fiber of the film. We have Daniels haunted by the sights of Jews frozen to death at Dachau and his unit subsequent expunging of the camp’s guards in an era where PTSD was not something remotely thought about. In addition, characters mention the fears of atomic annihilation as a result of the Cold War, the idea of Nazi scientist-torturers being granted pardons for service to the US military, and brainwashing techniques of HUAC. This constant atmosphere of not-knowing and being watched makes Shutter a perfect companion piece to The Aviator.
Shutter Island may not end on the most satisfying of notes, but there really is no other way for it to end. Such a story can’t deliver any true sense of justice and still remain true to its film noir and horror roots. From the first time we see Daniels, hunched over a toilet as the ferry rocks around him, it is apparent this character is in bad shape. An odyssey to an island of madness can never make such a condition better.
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