Sunday, February 21, 2010
Identity Crisis: Shutter Island
(Warning: It’s impossible to discuss this film substantively without revealing – early, frequently and explicitly – its secrets. Spoilers abound.)
It takes only one glimpse of Shutter Island to be filled with a sense of doom. An unwelcoming rock with sheer cliff faces around most of its perimeter, the titular setting of Martin Scorsese’s latest film is a grim and foreboding place even before the storm rolls in, even before one lays eyes on the island’s only edifice – a sprawling prison for the criminally insane. Historically, Shutter Island inspires thoughts of Alcatraz. Cinematically, it’s a delightfully twisted romper room of gothic horrors. Practically, it’s the perfect basket in which to hold a few dozen rotten eggs, to protect the world from them and them from the world, and perhaps to conduct some illicit psychological experiments, too. More than all of that, though, Shutter Island is a symbol, a physical depiction of what it means to be insane – to be locked in, removed and incapable of escape.
It’s this kind of visual storytelling that Scorsese does well in his adaptation of a novel by Dennis Lehane. Shutter Island is, at its best, a psychological thriller in the mold of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – one that’s notable less for the way it plays with our minds than for the way it explores the fragile mental state of its main character. It’s only appropriate then that Scorsese quotes those films with regularity, from its use of twisting vertical stairways that ascend toward madness to its vibrant dream sequences. And yet for all the ways that Shutter Island is cinematically rich, it is also dramatically flawed. It isn’t enough for Scorsese to try to emulate Hitchcock and Kubrick. He tries to emulate M. Night Shyamalan, too. More to the point, Scorsese tries to examine madness and conceal it at the same time, which is close to impossible. The result is a film that is most fascinating in retrospect, except that in retrospect Shutter Island also feels like an uninspiring cliché. There’s the rub.
I suppose I should pause here and mention that I was on to Shutter Island’s twist conclusion the first time Leonardo DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels pops aspirin in the office of prison administrator Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), some 15-20 minutes into the film. I wasn’t looking for the twist. In fact, I had no reason to doubt the story at face value. But even though I’m unfamiliar with Lehane’s novel, I am of course familiar with Vertigo, The Manchurian Candidate, The Sixth Sense, Mulholland Dr. and so many other films in which things aren’t exactly what they seem. At that early point in the film, I couldn’t possibly have predicted exactly how the story ends, and my Scrabble skills aren’t so fine-tuned that I decoded the names of Rachel Solando and Andrew Laeddis. But from almost the very beginning I presumed the entire story was a hallucination, and, as far as the mystery was concerned, that was that. To Scorsese’s credit, there were moments, even near the conclusion, when I thought – er, hoped – that I’d be proven wrong. But, in the end, the story went almost exactly where I thought it would.
So while I recognize that Shutter Island will provide some with the exhilarating free-fall experience that happens when – wham! – all at once the plot’s core mystery gets flipped upside down (or it is right side up?), I missed out on that rush. And yet Shutter Island doesn’t disappoint because of all that I knew ahead of time but because of all that I didn’t know as the story unfolded. Read that again. Here’s where we return to Vertigo. In the novel upon which that film is based (D’Entre Les Morts), the secret of the female’s dual identity isn’t revealed until the end. In the film, however, Hitchcock resolves the Madeleine/Judy mystery almost as soon as Judy is introduced. By revealing this secret to the audience, Vertigo stops being a rather straightforward mystery about Madeleine/Judy in order that it can become a complex psychological examination of Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie as he tries to turn Judy into Madeleine, unaware (at first) that they are in fact the same person.
Scorsese would have been wise to follow suit. While Shutter Island is littered with clues that point to its ultimate destination, the audience is never given enough information to appreciate the film’s true cinematic depth. Isn’t it more interesting, for example, to watch Teddy scaling the cliffs of Shutter Island if we know, unequivocally, that he’s crawling over the hard edges of his hallucinations, rather than wondering when the U.S. Marshall became such a skilled free-climber? Isn’t it more interesting to know that Teddy constantly encounters water because it directly relates to his psychological trauma, and not because Scorsese is lazily following the J-horror handbook? Isn’t it more interesting to watch Teddy’s patient interrogations and understand why he seems as crazed as those on the other side of the table? As Teddy, DiCaprio gives an intense and committed performance that is somewhat undermined by all that we don’t know. The false story of Teddy, haunted by his past and determined to solve the mystery of the missing patient, is less interesting than the truth: a man so emotionally crippled that he, like Scottie before him, creates an elaborate fantasy in order to find peace. Sure, it’s interesting to watch Teddy teetering on the edge of sanity, but Scorsese never gives us an overpowering moment like the one in Vertigo when Scottie watches Judy emerge from the bathroom, having completed her transformation into Madeleine, and Scottie’s last grasp of reality evaporates before our eyes. Or, rather, Scorsese does give us those moments, but he camouflages them so that we can’t appreciate their deepest meaning as they’re unfolding.
The shame of this approach is that when it comes time for Scorsese’s film to reveal its truths, they require so many words, words, words (including words on an easel) to explain. This not only puts Shutter Island at the opposite end of the twist spectrum from The Sixth Sense, which delivers its revelations quickly, effortlessly and powerfully with a series of images, it also distances the film from its very strength – visual storytelling. Despite some curiously overlong scenes that could have been shortened or altogether removed, Shutter Island is mostly engaging, thanks in large part to strong casting (from Kingsley to Mark Ruffalo to Max von Sydow to Jackie Earle Haley) and Scorsese’s knack for creating the appropriate atmosphere. But it’s telling that DiCaprio’s performance is at its most powerful in the film’s final flashback. Until then, Teddy doesn’t know who he is. And, unfortunately, neither do we.