It’s easy to write off a renowned ‘Serious’ filmmaker’s forays into genre work as pastiche, homage, or that wonderful term that can turn any genre work into critically acceptable Serious stuff — metafiction. Gangster movies are now bafflingly exempt from genrefication, however. What used to be a tried-and-tested pulp fiction dynamo has been seen, of late, as a staging ground for Serious — and only Serious — Cinema, to the extent that heavily stylised or lighthearted forays into movie gangsterdom are perceived as less than desirable — even insulting.
For this state of affairs, you can blame Francis Ford Coppola, and to a greater extent, Martin Scorsese. Or rather, you can blame the reaction to the cinema they created, the gangster films that mixed pulp with fine cinematic technique. Even a mediocre, gutted adaptation like The Departed got a free pass because it arrived under the banner of Serious Cinema (the original Infernal Affairs was not, and much the better for it).
So when Scorsese shows up along with long-time collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio in what is categorically neither a gangster movie nor Serious Cinema, the critics scramble to the safety of the cliffs of Pastiche. Let them gawk from their perches and try to ascribe greater meaning to the incoming genre storm that is Shutter Island, because the rest of us are going to be too busy enjoying the rain and thunder to care.
Precarious cliffs, and confusion with how to deal with things as they are presented is also at the heart of Shutter Island. The titular rock sits in the fog off Boston Harbor, and to it in 1954 come U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). The Marshals are investigating the strange disappearance of an inmate at the Ashecliff Hospital for the criminally insane. Its head psychiatrist Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley) is treating dangerous patients with the latest in medication and therapy, in the hope of curing them rather than locking them up and throwing away the key.
Suffice to say that all is not as it seems, from the disappearance of the inmate to the facility itself, and nearly every character has a hidden agenda.
Add to that the emotional baggage that Marshal Daniels brings with him; everything from memories of liberating Dachau concentration camp in World War 2, to the death of his wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) in an apartment building fire. The latter infiltrates his world quite severely, as he is plagued with dreams and hallucinations where his dead wife speaks to him.
It’s a potent mix of ingredients that the writers (screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis, working off Dennis Lehane’s novel) have to play with, and they do an admirable job of keeping even the most jaded thriller buff on their toes. The truth and reality are quickly rendered as malleable things in this world, and ‘Who dunnit?’ becomes less an issue than ‘What must be done of it?’ The result is a sumptuous, surreal, oftentimes harrowing tale of loss on many levels. But, instead of merely setting up a house of cards and taking them away one by one, as most psychological thrillers are content to do, Shutter Island instead comes to a conclusion — a final decision — that is simple, deft, and remarkably satisfying.
It helps that what you have both behind and in front of the camera is a cast and crew that earns the term All-Star. Leonardo DiCaprio’s skills as an actor are hardly in question at this point, but it’s a genuine treat to watch him deliver the various shades of the very complex Marshal Daniels. It’s very easy, in this kind of movie, for the plot and concept — its very surreality — to overtake the characters, and it is to DiCaprio’s credit that the film is firmly anchored in his very human and relateable performance. The supporting cast is equally strong, especially Michelle Williams.
If this film had been released last year as initially planned, I wonder if DiCaprio & Williams would have made it to major awards’ shortlists, because they certainly would have made mine.
When the trailers for the film first came out, I remember telling my brother, “We have to go see it in a cinema — it’s a Robert Richardson movie!”
“He’s the director?”
“No, no,” I replied, “he’s the cinematographer!”
Indeed, a Richardson-shot movie is always a treat to watch, with vivid lighting and colours, and strong composition. His work is certainly one of the most identifiable in cinema due to its excellence, and Shutter Island is no exception. Richardson proves that you do not need 3D glasses to experience immersive, breathtaking cinema; the subtle use of CG and other ‘modern’ effects is so seamless that you’d hardly notice that most of the island is made up in a computer. He comes out guns blazing in the surreal dream sequences and flashbacks, and the film will leave you with many haunting images.
(There’s one long tracking shot with the guards at Dachau that is particularly arresting to watch, which brings me to another aspect of the film: it is gruesome and violent, but never without reason. It earns every one of those moments.)
I suppose I could write reams about Thelma Schoonmaker’s playful and confident editing (but really, the woman is as much a master as Scorsese himself, so what more can be said), Dante Ferretti’s production design, or Robbie Robertson’s amazing use of classical music to compose the entire film score (if you are unfamiliar with the pieces, as I was, you’d think it was an entirely original score — it fits like a glove), but at this point I’m just gushing, and should stop.
This movie proves that the right pair of hands cranking the wheel is as important as the machine they’re cranking; that thrillers that play fast and loose with the truth & the mind can be more than hopeless downward spirals into confusion; that with Scorsese & Co. at the helm, you get much more than you pay for.
Shutter Island is not Serious Cinema, and thank you very much, Martin Scorsese, for that.