Martin Scorsese has never made a bad movie. That’s the kind of Scorsese fan I am. I truly believe that. And even when I don’t necessarily love a Scorsese movie, like, say After Hours, or New York, New York, I blame myself, not Saint Marty. Or, in the case of New York, New York, I blame his coke dealer. But I firmly believe he’s one of the greatest film makers of all time. I even love Gangs of New York. Yeah, I said it.
Even when you ignore the hallowed classics, like Taxi Driver, or Raging Bull, or Goodfellas, the middle ground stuff by Scorsese standards, is still better than almost any other movie you’ll ever see. So when I call Shutter Island middle ground, it’s only when using Scorsese as his own measuring stick. Because in the big scheme of things, Shutter Island is first class horror, suspense, psychological thriller stuff.
It’s the 1950s, and US Marshalls Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are on a ferry, crossing Boston Harbour, on their way to a prison for the insane on an isolated island. An inmate has gone missing, and it’s their job to find her. On arrival, they’re greeted by the island/prison’s Warden McPherson (John Carroll Lynch) who gives a gloriously exposition filled introduction to the island, it’s buildings and the quality of inmates. A former Civil War fort, its electrified fences, and deadly cliffs mean the only way off is via the very ferry that just delivered the Marshalls.
King dick of Shutter Island is Dr Crawly (Ben Kinglsey), who talks about the care they try to provide their patients, regardless of the terrible crimes that lead to them being sent there. In Crawly’s office, they meet Dr Naehring (Max Von Sydow), who’s German heritage flicks a PSTD switch in Daniels, causing flashbacks to the bloody liberation of the Dachau concentration camp during WWII. It’s not long before Daniels’ past and the current investigation begin to coincide and correlate. All the while, the motives, mysteries and actions of everyone on the island become muddier and murkier with every new discovery.
I’ve seen Shutter Island before. Actually, I’ve seen it twice before. The last time was over two years ago. I remembered the broad strokes of the mystery and the twist and I remembered that I generally liked it. So I don’t know if this is a criticism or a praising of the movie, but I had forgotten pretty much every specific of the mystery and the twist.
At the risk of sounding like even more of a Scorsese sycophant, I think it’s a good thing that I forgot that stuff. When a twist is the only thing you remember about a movie, or the only thing that makes it work, that’s not a very good movie. Most twists are just a McGuffin, to make the audience feel like they got a reward for sticking it out until the very end. But great movies are about the journey, not the destination. Sure, a satisfying ending is a big part of what makes a movie great too, but how you get there is even more important.
Shutter Island is creepy, it’s trippy, and it’s labyrinthian. The reveals only make things more complicated and the story winds its way deeper and deeper in to what could be a pit of quicksand and confusion. But an amazing team effort pulls it through. DiCaprio, Ruffalo and Kinglsey all find little ways to differentiate the different states their characters experience.
And behind the camera, Leata Kalogridis’ screenplay, Robert Richardson’s cinematography and Thelma Schoonmakers editing do an impeccable job. They keep all the balls in the air, making sure the audience can make them out just enough to keep a grip on things in the perfectly ambiguous and unsettling way that this story needs.
No one will ever call Shutter Island one of Scorsese’s best. When it came out, I kind of dismissed it too. It didn’t have the grand ambition of The Aviator or the Oscar success of The Departed. But re-watching Shutter Island, I was blown away by the precision it takes to tell a story this bat shit insane, and keep it thoroughly believable.