Shutter Island seems on the face of it like a textbook minor work — Martin Scorsese as hired gun, taking a job off the line to adapt Dennis Lehane’s novel into yet another grim “what-is-real?” thriller of the kind that flooded theaters in the post-Matrix, post-Fight Club turn of the millennium.
But like all of Scorsese’s “minor works,” he doesn’t stop being Scorsese just because he’s no longer telling stories of tough guys and gangsters. And like all of them, there’s a lot more to unpack under the surface, maybe more than in his more celebrated crime epics.
Scorsese has always been a student of horror, and Val Lewton, Mario Bava, and Hammer studios all loom large over his personal canon. Back when I first wrote about Scorsese, I commented that his very first student short shows a heavy horror influence. Those influences would remain in the background for most of his career even as he tried on new genres like suits. He’d bring them somewhere near the foreground for Cape Fear. And he made a half-hour horror pic for the Amazing Stories anthology, but the less said about that, the better. Shutter Island isn’t really a horror movie either — to the extent there’s a difference, it falls more on the thriller side of the line, and Scorsese connects it to Hitchcock and film noir at least as much as Lewton and Bava. But there’s enough there that it gives us a chance to see yet another side of the master, and that’s a chance you never want to pass up.
If Shutter Island works, Scorsese’s mastery has more to do with it than anything, because the story itself is preposterous. Leo DiCaprio stars as Teddy Daniels, a detective investigating a disappearance from the mental hospital on Shutter Island. He soon discovers that nothing is what it seems, anyone could be out to get him, yadda yadda. This is all boilerplate Fincher/Nolan stuff — maybe that’s why Fincher turned it down, and the resemblance becomes downright eerie when you remember DiCaprio played almost the same character in Inception, which opened just as Shutter Island hit the video store shelves.
There’s other connections here, too. DiCaprio begins Shutter Island in the same place we left him at the end of The Aviator, washing his face in a cramped bathroom. You could look at this opening as a signal, like the secret messages Teddy chases down across the island. If it’s not as in-depth as the director-star duo’s past masterpiece, and even if it plays outdated ideas of insanity for shocks, Shutter Island still continues their exploration of men tormented by their own minds.
And Scorsese’s total mastery of the form puts us right there with him. This is a maddening movie about madness, and the ways Scorsese achieves that effect are almost subliminally subtle. I’ve already talked on Looper about how he and editor Thelma Schoonmaker purposely leave in continuity errors a more conventional film would clean up. I analyzed that to remind us not to trust our eyes, but it can serve other purposes too. In a dream sequence, DiCaprio pulls out a cigarette that lights itself between shots. That may be unrealistic in life, but it’s an exactingly realistic portrayal of dreams. And of course, these small details aren’t meant to be noticed. They’re meant to keep us off-balance without knowing why.
Schoonmaker finds other ways to do that too. I haven’t seen a movie with this many jump cuts since Breathless — that is, cuts that interrupt our sense of continuity, starting and stopping characters’ actions in the middle. There’s also a lot of whip pans to jerk us around, including one that, unnervingly, goes nowhere. Every time it seems like Scorsese might go for the conventional choice, he goes in a stranger, more unsettling direction. Instead of an original score or his usual pop/rock needle drops, Scorsese patches together a variety of modern classical and other avant-garde compositions. For instance, there’s Krystof Penderecki’s Symphony #3. It’s appropriately dramatic on its own, but it can be overbearing as movie mood music. But then, in the scene of Teddy’s unit massacring the SS at Dachau, something strange happens. The music swells and swells and swells as the Allied soldiers line the guards up, but then at the most dramatic moment — it stops, mid-note, and all you hear are the deafening shots. It’s a rug pull that’s more disturbing than any score could be.
Most of the composers on the soundtrack — besides Penderecki, there’s John Cage, John Adams, and Gyorgy Ligeti, who’d already lent his sound to 2001 — come from one modernist movement or another. All of them wanted to escape conventions like tonality and melody. I’ve read some of their thoughts, and they seem to see this as a joyous, liberating process. But to the untrained ear, the results are deeply unsettling, and plenty of horror filmmakers had used similar dissonant noises before Scorsese went back to the source. It’s the perfect choice for a movie set right at the middle of the 20th century — John Adams and Nam June Paik’s tape loop experiments provide a period-appropriate version of the digital audio distortions that soundtrack modern horror.
There’s another explanation for these composers’ experiments — that classical consonance just doesn’t fit the horror of the 20th century. That idea’s hard to shake watching Shutter Island, and it turns the whole experience from a boilerplate thriller to something more deeply disturbing. Like many critics have said about a similar ending in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the twist that the sinister authority figures are actually the hero’s doctors, trying to cure him, seems to support the status quo. We have nothing to fear from authority — they’ve just wanted what’s best for us all along.
Here’s the thing, though. Teddy’s paranoid fantasies of blacklisting, political prisoners, Nazi war criminals working for the US government, and secret experiments actually happened. So did World War II, the Holocaust, the fetishization and accompanying breakdown of the nuclear family, and all the other defining horrors Scorsese brings into the movie. Shutter Island suggests the entire history of the 20th century is so horrible it can only be processed as a paranoid delusion. This idea struck me the first time I saw it, and I’ve gone back and forth on how much of a stretch it is, but some of the patients all but spell it out: “I don’t know the world anymore. They say there are bombs that can reduce whole cities to ash. And what do you call them — televisions. Voices and faces coming from a box. I hear enough voices already.” “Listen, I don’t wanna leave here alright? I mean, why would anybody want to? We hear things here about the outside world. About atolls, about H-bomb tests.” Happy 4th of July.
And if there’s any doubt Scorsese has more on his mind than thriller boilerplate, he gives the island’s warden a chilling dialogue with Teddy that might as well be a manifesto for his whole career: “When I came downstairs in my home, and I saw that tree in my living room, it reached out for me… a divine hand. God loves violence. … Why else would there be so much of it? It’s in us. It’s what we are. We wage war, we burn sacrifices, and pillage and plunder and tear at the flesh of our brothers. And why? Because God gave us violence to wage in his honor. … There’s no moral order as pure as this storm. There’s no moral order at all. There’s just this: can my violence conquer yours? … You’re as violent as they come. I know this, because I’m as violent as they come. If the constraints of society were lifted, and I was all that stood between you and a meal, you would crack my skull with a rock and eat my meaty parts. Wouldn’t you?”
All this comes to us through Teddy’s eyes, and Scorsese, with his fascination with subjectivity, is just the man for the job to make us constantly question how much of what we see is really there. Cribbing from younger filmmakers again, he gives the storm-tossed island the same oppressive wetness as both versions of The Ring. We eventually learn the storm and everything to do with it is just part of Teddy’s delusion, his way of justifying why he can’t leave in his fantasy where he’s not an inmate. This raises a lot of questions, but it still adds up on an intuitive level — the storm is too furious to be real, or to be anything but a manifestation of Teddy’s inner turmoil. Cinematographer Robert Richardson has made blinding lights his trademark, and Scorsese puts that effect to excellent use here, making us feel Teddy’s migraine right along with him. We can also thank Richardson for the overwhelming green of the suburban home Teddy visits in his dreams, gorgeous and grotesque all at once.
Scorsese’s matter-of-fact treatment of the supernatural serves him well here too. Teddy’s haunted by ghosts, and like in The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead, their supernatural quality is that much more shocking because Scorsese doesn’t draw attention to it. Instead, he plays with the sound mixing, giving their voices a subtly different sound than the living characters.
Michelle Williams plays one of those ghosts, Teddy’s dead wife, and if this isn’t exactly Goofus and Gallant compared to Nolan’s Dead Wife in Inception, it’s close. She’s not an abstract manifestation of guilt and evil like Inception’s Mal. In her few brief scenes, Williams makes Dolores a real person who you can believe really existed before she’s reduced to a memory in Teddy’s head. Even when she appears as a part of his own personality to warn him against learning the truth, Williams makes us believe, like Teddy does, that she’s a real person with her own separate desires.
That’s part of what redeems Shutter Island from that ridiculous twist. Of course, it doesn’t hurt any to have Ben Kingsley lending his gravitas to all that nonsense. He explains that Teddy’s whole investigation was just an (extremely) elaborate roleplaying exercise. The “Andrew Laeddis” he’s been hunting down is really him, because his subconscious apparently thinks in anagrams — Kingsley even draws a chart! Never mind why a medical professional would let his patient wander around unsupervised around dangerous rocky terrain. Or what another doctor, played by Max Von Sydow, or the poor guard in front of the lighthouse think about getting the snot beaten out of them as part of this “treatment.” Or how Kingsley gets his whole fucking car blown up. Scorsese keeps our bullshit meters from going off too wildly by dropping in genuinely unsettling moments — like when Teddy insists he can tell by the feel of his gun that it’s his and it’s fully loaded until the wooden prop crumbles in his hands.
And then — the gut punch. Scorsese yanks us out of Teddy’s delusion and into reality. His discovery of his dead children all plays out in eerie silence. After all, reality doesn’t have a soundtrack. In the same way, DiCaprio reminds us real people don’t cry like movie people, diving in without fear for his dignity into horrible, inhuman noises. Scorsese never overplays his hand — we first see the children’s corpses in long shot, indistinct and with nothing to draw attention to them. It’s all the more disturbing because Scorsese trusts the image itself to disturb us without juicing up his presentation of it. When the music returns, it’s just John Cage playing one dissonant note over and over again. And when the silence is broken by a gunshot, it’s as shocking onscreen as it would be in reality.
Teddy seems to have recovered after that. But then, sitting on the front stoop with Mark Ruffalo’s doctor and/or detective, he relapses, talking again as if he were detective Teddy Daniels and not mental patient Andrew Laeddis. Before the men in white coats can take him away to be lobotomized, he gives us these last words: “You know, this place makes me wonder. Which would be worse – to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?”
To get at the impact of this moment, I need to share my own reaction when I first saw it. It seemed like a transparent attempt, so much clumsier than the many nods Scorsese made elsewhere in the film, for the older director to keep up with the new generation, riding on Nolan’s “Either you die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself to become the villain.”
But it slowly dawned on me Scorsese wasn’t dealing with generalities here. This isn’t some secondhand bumper-sticker wisdom. It’s a confession. Teddy is a monster, at least by his own reckoning. That guilt is so overwhelming he can’t live with it. So he retreats back into his delusion, or pretends to so he can be rid of his selfhood altogether. Suicide by surgeon.
And as this tragedy began to settle in piece by piece, the credits began rolling and I was hit by Robbie Robertson combining two of the saddest, most heartbreakingly beautiful songs ever recorded, Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth” and Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight.” And Robertson turns them into something even sadder and more heartbreakingly beautiful in the way he combines them. Reader, I wept.
A lot of critics don’t think that’s grounds enough to judge a movie. If anything, they’ll treat what they call “emotional manipulation” or “sentimentality” or what have you, as a bug, not a feature. But emotions aren’t as easy to manipulate as these critics make them out to be, and the movies that hit me in the heart stay with me far longer than the ones that appeal to my head, and for all its flaws, Shutter Island is one of those movies. I like to think Scorsese himself, who brought the combined forces of the internet down on his head for defining cinema as “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being” would agree.