Martin Scorsese making a horror picture: the notion is of course catnip to any fan of the director. One experiences a thrill just contemplating the exhilarating cinematic virtuosity and deep knowledge of the genre that the director will bring to the table. And it's going to have to have some kind of personal dimension, no? There might be the rub. Given the point in his career that it's coming at, one couldn't have been sure, or even mildly confident, that Shutter Island would, in fact, have all that much to do with the Martin Scorsese of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy. Shutter Island, adapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane, is the fourth Scorsese picture in a row to star Leonard DiCaprio, and the prior pictures in this collaboration are all epics or quasi-epics that have gotten more impersonal as they've gone along. Gangs of New York, of course, was a passion project that was more or less hijacked by its patron, the would-be latter-day Samuel Bronston (or is it Sam Spiegel?) Harvey Weinstein.(It remains, however, a film of some very magnificent parts and I commend all properly-equipped readers to the new Blu-ray disc of the picture.) The Aviator was Scorsese's stab at being the contemporary equivalent of a studio director, with the maestro mostly finding an affinity with lead character Howard Hughes' obsessiveness and fear of flashbulbs, and otherwise having a very good time with color and costumes and learning about CGI. The Departed was an all-star genre exercise created at something of a remove; certain reports suggest that much of the director's time was spent trying to prevent the biggest legend of said all-star cast from, again, hijacking the picture. Naturally this was the work for which Scorsese won his first Best Director Oscar.
So all things being equal, even the most devoted of Scorsese fans couldn't necessarily be blamed for expecting little beyond a very very grand piece of Guignol, with inimitable style and panache but maybe not so much resonance. So I am thoroughly happy to report that, to my eyes and ears at least, Shutter Island is, in the Godardian formulation, a vrai Scorsese film, in its way the most fully realized personal work of the Scorsese-DiCaprio collabs, a puzzle picture that, as it puts its plot pieces together, climbs to a crescendo that aims to reach that perfect note of empathetic despair we haven't seen/heard in a Hollywood picture since Vertigo. I think it very nearly gets there.
DiCaprio plays a federal marshal who, with a new partner (Mark Ruffalo), goes out to the titular island, which houses a super-specialized, supposedly super-secure, mental hospital for the criminally insane, from which a patient has, again, supposedly, escaped. Something's off from the very start, as the not-particularly solicitous Deputy Warden of the place, played by John Carroll Lynch, demands that the two feds, who outrank him after all, surrender their weapons at the intimidating gates of the facility. Something to do with "protocol." Once inside, DiCaprio's character is more and more prone to flashbacks (remembering his actions after helping liberate a World War II death camp), horrific dreams involving not just his late wife (Michelle Williams), but the supposedly escaped patient (Emily Mortimer) and the children she murdered, and apparent hallucinations. As he grows to trust his new partner—and distrust everyone else, from the imperious doctors running the joint (Sir Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow) to the very disturbed patients themselves—he confides his "real" reasons for wanting to have pulled this assignment, and his outlandish suspicions about its actual "mission."
Curiouser and curiouser it grows, with new elements thrown into the labyrinth of a storyline even as others are peeled...not quite away but a little bit down, as it were. The ornate dream sequences are particularly knotty, and long, and in the many scenes of horror Scorsese pushes the imagery in ways we haven't expected of him in a while. Indeed, I imagine certain arbiters of supposed good taste will find much to object to here. It's unsettling stuff. But there's also a lushness to it all, a powerful Powell-Pressburger feel to both the cinematography (some of Robert Richardson's richest work, and this guy knows from richness) and the production design (by Dante Ferretti, who's just as unleashed as Richardson, as it were). For all the film's seriousness of purpose, you can sense where Scorsese's having a bit of fun with the genre and with references. I was a little surprised to see such a powerful influence from The Shining (and not just in the music, which, like that of Kubrick's film, is largely culled from contemporary classical masters such as Penderecki and Ligeti, and is massively powerful all the way through); less so the nods to Psycho, Lewton and Robson's Bedlam, Preminger's Laura, and many more classics.
But it's what's going on underneath all these surfaces, and the myriad plot twists, that gives this picture its greatest pull. Even more than Raging Bull, Shutter Island can be read as a feature-length remake of Scorsese's harrowing 1969 short The Big Shave: it's a chronicle of a man who simply cannot stop hurting himself, cutting himself open. And as such I found it terribly moving. Without going into too much detail, the thing about Shutter Island that frightened me the most (and it frightened me plenty) was what it told me about what I was doing with my own life. I don't expect—and certainly don't hope—that it will work on all that many viewers in that particular way, but I still feel it's definitely a more powerful, and Scorsesian, experience than your garden-variety big budget frightfest.