Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island

Just one review – at least, for tonight. Yes, it’s something I’m going to feel dirty all over for for the next week or so, but I do have others coming in the next couple of days for the three or four of you – I’ve been hard at work on something else y’see, posted just above. If it should please you, say so. As for GCP, I’m unsure of what’s going on, at the moment – which is one of the reasons for the lack of writing over the past week. Several of the things I’ll be posting sooner or later were things I’d written in preparation for the site, but it doesn’t seem like anything’s really going on over that-a-way, so I guess I’ll throw them up here, instead. Also, there should be a piece by our resident writer Grouchy87 on the Coen Brother’s A Serious Man up later this week, so that’s certainly something to keep an eye out for. In any case –

Shutter Island is one of those rare moments in filmdom when Scorsese steps away from the gangster genre and reminds us that his status as one of contemporary cinema’s mainstream masters isn’t at all tied to the machinations of foul men in tuxedos – here, he seems to return to the kind of material that marked his earlier work with Roger Corman; but, instead of the brash, headlong style of those earlier films, he brings instead the eye of patient maturity developed over a period of forty years, and in doing so has created a breathless synergy of stirring character examination and pure genre filmmaking. In this case, that genre is classic Film Noir – and, Scorsese mines the iconography of the genre for bursts of unexpectedly genuine emotion, finding connections hidden here and there, gradually boiling U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniel’s down to his core. All is formally rigorous Noir and Expressionist aesthetics – stark angles and harsh lighting, music that glances and strikes at the audience in an almost self-aware attempt at melodrama that plays perhaps into the ending, in some way – compounded with the essential elemental nature of the island, with its strong tides and craggy cliffs, and the lighthouse watching ominously over all.

I’ll admit, the trailer did throw me off – what with Leo’s egregiously over-the-top Boston accent, the general Cape Fear aspect of the whole thing, and so on. But, the former seems to be explained within the story, especially given Scorsese’s ambiguous-but-not ending. The latter is something the film seems to acknowledge, but it’s certainly a far better film than Cape Fear. Scorsese finds a strong connection within Daniel’s past to the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, of the essential inhuman horrors found there, and the simultaneous visions of his dead wife and child – and yet, even beyond these things, there’s something even more primal at work, here. Something hinted at during the scene where Daniel’s is being driven back to the hospital by the Warden (portrayed by Silence of The Lambs Ted Levine), who gives him a lecture on Darwinism and the essential violence that turns the knobs of man that would set anyone’s warning signs straight off. “I could lean over and bite your eye out, right now if it weren’t for society,” he says. “And, you wouldn’t be able to stop me.”

Slowly, gradually – Scorsese peels off the layers of his Noir; the trope of the ‘uncertain protagonist with a shady past’ is given new weight by the end of the film, when all is laid bare. And, while there is still a sense of ambiguity about the outcomes of the film, there isn’t really. We want to say that it’s possible that “Teddy” was right all along, because – well, we’ve come all this way with him, and we’ve seen what he’s seen. But we know that isn’t true, in our heart of hearts. Speaking of, I will say one of the things that needled at me was near the end, when Teddy resolves himself to his fate,  there’s a shot of one of the orderlies coming straight up to him with a giant ice-pick in his hand, the significance of which we’re well informed of by this point – it’s kind of an image that appears ludicrous, and interrupts the feeling of confusion inherent to the scene. It something that quickly passes, however.  And then, Scorsese shows us the lighthouse once more – and, our curiosity strikes itself up again.

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