I believe that Scorsese is trying to make a trilogy, combining his new favorite city (Boston) with his old love of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The Departed was a salute to Hayes code era gangster films, in which evil is punished no matter what. Shutter Island is a salute to Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers. Like Hitchcock, Shutter Island is dependent on surreal images that showcase a visual struggle of man’s inner torment. Many have tried to emulate Hitchcock, few have actually succeeded. Luckily, Scorsese is one of those who not only knows film but can emulate what the masters say perfectly.
Shutter Island takes place in 1954. Two U.S. Marshals, Edward Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) have been dispatched to the titular island where a mental institution rests. One of the patients has disappeared in the middle of the night, leaving no trace left behind. As all the patients are psychotic, it is imperative that the patient be recovered. Yet, while they are there, the Marshals uncover a conspiracy that may mean the doctors of Shutter Island are performing grotesque brain surgery on the patients.
First, the wonderful surreal dream sequences. They are the sort of things Hitchcock would do if he were still alive. You see, Daniels is a veteran who was present at the liberation of Dachau, something that has apparently scared him for life. Later, his wife was later killed in a fire at their apartment and the arsonist who performed the deed was detained in Shutter Island. Daniels is constantly tormented by images of his wife (whose appearance certainly recalls Kim Novak’s in Vertigo) and haunts his dreams. They are the most disturbing part of the film, but also the most brilliant-a wonderful commentary on how the mind works and how traumas always seem to combine together. Plus, the CGI making a person crumble into ash is quite well done.
But such an effect is not merely meant to showcase an effect. It is a commentary on anyone’s crumbling psyche. Daniels finds himself going mad the more he uncovers in the island. The twist at the end-well I cannot say any more. I will say that it is an ending that matches the themes of the film. And there are enough clues planted throughout to guess (I did so after, oh, twenty minutes. Not bragging-I have just seen way too many of similar films) and the ending does what it needs to-give a satisfactory conclusion while giving the viewers something to thing about.
DiCaprio and the rest also do well. I do not know why Scorsese saw DiCaprio and figured him to be his new muse, but it has paid off nicely for both men. Ben Kingsley (as head psychiatrist Dr. Cawley) and Max Von Sydow are both quite haunting, Susan Sarandon shows up for an interesting cameo, and Mark Ruffallo needs to catch a break. He is a talented actor stuck forever in bit roles. Well, maybe being in a Scorsese film will help. And the various extras playing the mental patients-I am curious if they actually visited any mental institutions in preparations for their roles. It is quite frightening what they are able to accomplish. I know many who are frightened of these characters. They are “too scary.”
Is it their aesthetic appearance that is frightening? Or the reality that any person could end up in that position? That is the truly frightening prospect of the film. Sanity is not a certainty. Did any character in the asylum plan to end up in the asylum? I highly doubt it. Many appear to be attempting to live normal lives (one patient is convinced that she is still at home and the doctors are “milk men”) and each desire to flee. Of course, their prison is not set for any certain amount of time. It could be an eternity of waiting for freedom.
That is the strength of the film-it is one that never succumbs to a gimmick and maintains its themes, something that many Hitchcock imitators can not do. This one has studied the master carefully. Shutter Island is one film that plants its clues cleverly (another one-note the bandage that DiCaprio wears in almost every scene) and the score is something that Bernard Hermann may have written. Scorsese has created one of the most effective thrillers in years. Into this new decade, I have a feeling this will be one that people remember in 2020.
“We are fighting a war” Dr Cawley explains. Yet it is not a war fought overseas-it is a war fought everyday by us to maintain our sanity. Sometimes, we lose.