Sunday, February 21, 2010

Shutter Island: Scorsese Makes Psychology Thrilling

Before you even walk into Shutter Island, you know it has all the elements of a good Scorsese drama: New England cops, stern guards, weird weather, period atmospherics, classical references, and Leonardo diCaprio. The only question is...what kind of movie is it? A police procedural, where two marshals from the mainland are invited to an isolated island of the criminally insane to track down an inmate who's gone missing? Or is it something else?

Scorsese doesn't answer this question until nearly the end of the film, and it's his ability to keep this question in suspense throughout that really elevates this material. This is, if you haven't learned already, a movie with a twist - and though I've only seen it once so far, I suspect that it really requires two viewings to fully appreciate all the intricate detail. It's hard to even talk about a movie like this without suggesting, perhaps, more than you should know going in - so those who wish to discover this movie completely for themselves should perhaps stop reading now.

As DiCaprio (playing Teddy Daniels, a World War Two veteran who's now a Federal Marshal) and his new partner, Chuck (played by Mark Ruffalo) first approach the island, they're in a boat, and Teddy is throwing up. He gets seasick, apparently, and as he and Chuck meet each other and talk, Teddy tells him he's not married - his wife passed away in a fire in his apartment. So Teddy is thoroughly devoted to his work.

That work, at first, seems to be to come to Shutter Island and interrogate the good doctors (played wonderfully by Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow), along with the orderlies and nurses, about the apparently impossible disappearance of a patient - Rachel - from her cell. Rachel has vanished from the guarded cell without her shoes, and without any way off the cliff-strewn island. As Teddy and Chuck interview patients and explore the island, however, the patients warn Teddy to get away: and Teddy becomes increasingly suspicious that something more sinister is going on.

Teddy's suspicions are heightened by a few factors: first, there are the dreams...disturbing images of his dead wife, bloody, wet, and on fire. Dreams as well of his time in Germany, at the Dachau concentration camp, where the bodies of dead prisoners were stacked like sacks of grain, and the German guard committed suicide, but ineffectually, leaving Teddy to watch him slowly die. Could the doctors have some reason to keep Teddy off his guard, to maybe even slip something in his food that would cause these disturbing dreams? Then there's that doctor played by von Sydow - Dr. Naehring - he's a German himself, and Teddy becomes suspicious he may be importing some of the most notorious Nazi techniques here to America.

There's also another ward of patients - Ward C - where the most dangerous of the insane are kept. As the weather on the island gets worse, and they hide together in a cemetery, Teddy confesses to his partner Chuck that he really has an ulterior motive for coming to the island. He believes that his wife's death wasn't just an accident. A pyromaniac who lived in their apartment, a man named Laeddis, was held accountable for the fire. Teddy believes that Laeddis is here, on this island, being held in that notorious Ward C, and Teddy is here to find him.

As Teddy intensifies his hunt, he apparently starts gathering the evidence he needs: evidence of another missing patient being held in the asylum. Of the missing Rachel. Of experiments on the inmates. Of Laeddis himself. And all this evidence is leading Teddy to an ultimate confrontation with Kingsley's Dr. Cawley: if Cawley even intends to ever let Teddy and Chuck off the island with what they've learned.

When that confrontation comes, along with the revelations (the "twist" if you will), the movie asks us to reconsider everything that's come before. When one does, one sees that all the clues were there all along - not just in the atmospherics of Shutter Island, in the creaky castles and windblown crags, but also in the visuals (the streaming of thousands of mice from a cave, the bisected wound on Laeddis's face), the music (which punctuates certain scenes, giving them an odd hyperreality), and the careful choice of metaphoric dialogue.

To some, the heightened music and atmospherics may seem a cheap horror gimmick a la that used in another recent release, Wolfman. But there is a clear purpose (it serves intentionally to delineate the different levels of reality in the film), and perhaps a second viewing might make it all seem, in fact, more essentially clever and thematic.

Dr. Naehring introduces one of the movie's most powerful themes: that the etymology for the word "dream" in German comes from "trauma" or "wound." He leaps from there to the idea of "monster" but there is also an etymological connection to "lie" and "deceive": both of which are decidedly relevant. In a world just emerging from war, murder, and the atrocities of the Nazis, we are asked to confront some of man's most inner evil: there indeed is a great wound to uncover here, lies being told, and monsters that lurk. In the end, Teddy faces a choice. His final words to us suggest that the choice he does make is both deliberate...and monstrous.

Personally, I love movies like this - those that become more than what they seem, and ask us to go back and puzzle the pieces together. The movie can also be read on many different levels: as a psychological thriller, yes, but perhaps also as a political allegory, not only for the 1950's, but also for our own time, so faced as we are with our own atrocities, our own violent nature, our own deep denials. My only quibble is how late into the film Scorsese springs his twist, and how little time that leaves us to assemble the pieces and contemplate the connections. Some people might even feel a little big conned by the film. I would have preferred that a little more doubt had crept in a bit earlier - but then, I suppose, that wouldn't have been a cinematically dramatic. The scene leading up to the big reveal has Teddy running up a metal, spiral staircase in a tall lighthouse - shot with camera angles reminiscent of another 1950's story of a detective facing a psychological moment of truth, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. The reference is at once both clever and a little bit trite, the type of gesture reminiscent of Brian de Palma, which in fact may be the style Scorsese is going for here.

Like de Palma, Scorsese has created not a movie so much as a series of fever dreams and cinematic gestures; unlike dePalma, Scorsese wraps it up with a master story-teller's touch...though perhaps he does so a bit too quickly, and with a bit too much exposition. The techniques employed by the good Dr. Crawly do seem to come straight out of the B movie psychoanalysis handbook. But however it is we find ourselves getting to Teddy's final words, they certainly are chilling.

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