Martin Scorsese once famously opined that The Departed was the first of his movies “with a plot”. In that same manner, you might say that Shutter Island is Scorsese’s first unrealistic movie. This is not to say it is a bad movie – but it is the first movie by the this country’s greatest living filmmaker since at least The King of Comedy that is clearly not meant to exist in a version of “reality”. In contrast to his normal beat, Scorsese takes Dennis LeHane’s neo-noir thriller novel, and in many ways goes all Shymalan on us.
The film opens in 1954 with US Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) heading to an island off of the coast of Massachusetts. The island that is the film’s namesake is a mental institution for only the most violent of insane criminals. But even in this opening scene, we see much of the grammar and style film noir. For instance, the shots of the mountains and the ocean and fog are very stylized – almost like it was the product of a sound stage and not the outdoors. It looks almost too perfect. When the actors are conversing in their fedoras and constant smoking – Scorsese evokes the style of film noir. Everything is heightened, and the sense of darkness lurking around the corner is set.
This foreboding is throughout the movie – and like Shymalan, it almost seems to drive Scorsese’s motivation and the acting choices. Ben Kingsley decidedly is channeling noir in his role as Dr. Cawley, one of the doctors treating the patients at the Island – walking the tightrope of self-parody, suggesting shades of meaning and ambiguous intention. For crissakes, Max Von Sydow is his colleague! Is there anything that screams creepy typecasting more than that? It is just striking that a guy like Scorsese making a movie that ultimately evoked movies like The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable. The question for veteran Scorsese-philes is what did he see in the material other than a thriller? Could one of the greatest artists in our country be content simply with making a commercial picture?
In order to investigate this question, I am tempted to look at Roger Ebert’s essay on The Departed, where Scorsese transcends a genre and an original source, for some insight:
Most of Martin Scorsese‘s films have been about men trying to realize their inner image of themselves. That’s as true of Travis Bickle as of Jake LaMotta, Rupert Pupkin, Howard Hughes, the Dalai Lama, Bob Dylan or, for that matter, Jesus Christ.
Scorsese’s leitmotif still works here, as throughout the movie, the DiCaprio character is forced to face a deep trauma, and certain other stuff which I can’t begin to hint here. Certainly the inner image thing is very much latent, though the movie certainly works as thriller.
Ultimately, this film fits more in the “lesser Scorsese” mode of something like Cape Fear or for, let’s be honest, The Departed. Both of those were superior works of genre – but neither of them touch the edges of his greatness the way even something like The Aviator does, let alone his 70s canon. But this is still America’s greatest living filmmaker – and a man who never coasts on his gifts – and this movie is a considerable achievement.