Another highlight from this year’s Butt-Numb-A-Thon (aside from the previously reviewed “Avatar” and “Kick-Ass”) was the world premiere screening of Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island.” If you’re not familiar with Butt-Numb-A-Thon, it’s a 24 hour movie marathon, where the movies play back to back to back from noon on Saturday to noon on Sunday. Except this year it started at 11:00 and ended after 2:00. Harry Knowles programs the event as his birthday/Geek Christmas, and it’s always a mix of vintage films and new films. Honestly, the best example of how that can pay off with a whole that is better than any of its parts individually came with the way we ended up watching “Shutter Island.”
Harry had to write Scorsese a letter and ask him for permission to show the film at Butt-Numb-A-Thon. So Harry wrote a letter describing the vintage programming and the children’s charity that the BNAT supports and how Harry wanted to show “Shock Corridor” by Sam Fuller right before showing “Shutter Island.” And he found the entire experience sort of nerve-wracking. I get it. It’s one thing to ask Paramount to give you the Scorsese film. It’s another thing entirely to ask Scorsese directly.
The director sent word back to Harry that he was interested in letting the film play, but he wanted to request a different movie to play before it. Harry is very proprietary over the BNAT line-up, so it easily could have turned into a problem if Harry didn’t want to change his programming. This, of course, was Martin Scorsese making the request, though, so Harry did the only sane thing he could do and happily changed the lead-in. Instead of “Shock Corridor,” we ended up seeing “The Red Shoes.” Little surprise there. It’s one of his oft-cited favorite films, and he just co-produced a new 4K restoration of the film. I’ve seen it many times, but it was wonderful to see this classic work on a crowd, and considering how many of them hadn’t seen it before, it was an act of kindness for Scorsese to push this one on Harry.
So far, I’m 50/50 on films adapted from Dennis Lehane novels. I really, truly, intensely don’t like Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” which I felt was overwrought and preposterous. But “Gone Baby Gone,” as directed by Ben Affleck, was a solid, bitter little pill. I liked that film’s sensibility, the way it handled what could have been a big fat bag of melodrama. Having never read Lehane, it seems to me that adapting his work becomes a matter of taste, and how restrained or how florid you play his very big, very mechanical plots. Tone is the trick of the thing, and that’s especially true with this piece of material. Scorsese’s in “Cape Fear” mode here, making his own version of the sort of thing that rocked his world when he was younger. Scorsese is still every bit the active, imitative film nerd that Quentin Tarantino is… they’re just drawing from different wells.
Screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis faced a challenge with “Shutter Island,” and with an audience that’s ten years past “The Sixth Sense,” which set off a spate of films that were built to play some sort of trick on the audience, whether that’s a twist or a reveal or a structural gimmick or whatever… M. Night’s got a lot of ‘splainin’ to do when it comes to the sins of the ’00’s. “Shutter Island” is less about what the final reveal turns out to be, and more about the ride along the way. And that’s not to say the end of the film is weak… it’s an emotional powerhouse that more than justifies any game-playing that goes on. It’s just that this film is such a tactile pleasure, such a finely-tuned genre machine by a guy who is one of the most reflexively gifted visual storytellers who has ever worked. I like this a hell of a lot more than I liked “The Departed,” which I enjoyed. That one felt like familiar ground, though, while this is a Scorsese we’ve never really seen before. He’s played dark, and he’s played with high style, but he’s never really made something you could call a horror film before now. “Shutter Island” is a horror film, but with a haunted house that travels on two legs.
Teddy Daniels (Leonardo Di Caprio) and Chuck Aules (Mark Ruffalo) are U.S. Marshalls, summoned to an off-shore correctional facility for the criminally insane to investigate the disappearance of a woman named Rachel Solando. Very quickly, it becomes obvious that there’s something else afoot on the island, and Teddy and Chuck are drawn into a mysterious spiral of lies and cover-ups and secrets and memory. Are the staff on the island part of a conspiracy? Is Max Von Sydow a former Nazi? Are there secret buildings where terrible things are done to patients? Are there more patients than anyone admits? If so, where are they? Who are they?
Teddy’s got his own pain he’s carrying around even before he gets to the island, involving memories of his time in WWII, when he helped liberate the death camps. Scorsese stages a shocking, awful memory at Dachau, and it’s probably the closest we’ll come to his version of “Schindler’s List,” which he was originally going to direct. By playing with such real-world horror early on, Scorsese signifies that even though this is a heightened reality, the stakes are high, and the wounds on these characters are real. It makes sense that Teddy would be the guy who come investigate Rachel Solando, since she’s just like him, haunted by memories of what she did. The difference is that Teddy had his reasons for his sins in Europe, while Rachel’s crimes were unforgivable.
Maybe there’s more to it, though. Maybe Teddy has an agenda of his own on the island that has nothing to do with the missing woman. Scorsese and Kalogridis take a real fiendish pleasure in the ways they tighten the screws here, and the necessary exposition, even though there are bucketloads of it, flies by with a feather touch. It’s impressive how well the film keeps its hold on the viewer, all the way to the end. It’s a controlled exercise in suspense and emotional pressure, and Scorsese makes great use of Leonardo Di Caprio. I know the first half of Scorsese’s career was defined by his collaboration with Robert De Niro to some degree, so this modern era of Scorsese films has to be defined by his collaboration with Di Caprio. They seem to relish each new film together, and I think Scorsese counts on Di Caprio’s bankability to get these films greenlit. Beyond that, though, I think Scorsese sees things in Di Caprio that no one else would. He certainly wouldn’t be the guy I’d think of if someone just described the character of Teddy Daniels, but seeing how Di Caprio plays him, and seeing how it all pays off, I think he’s perfect for the role.
He’s given tremendous support by a very game cast that Scorsese’s assembled here. Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow are practically walking punch lines because of how many bad guys they’ve played in how many movies, and Scorsese trades off your expectations of that. Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson are asked to bring some big emotional fireworks to the film, and they do. Michelle Williams is… well, unforgettable seems to be a fitting term. It’s going to be hard to see her as anything but her role in this film for a while. Mark Ruffalo is the other half of the investigative team, playing a tricky role. Actually, everyone’s role is tricky, because even once secrets are revealed, there are other levels to what’s going on. How much of what we see is a character’s perception, and how much is meant to be objective reality? That tension is what makes the film work even if you know the ending walking in. Scorsese is playing his own game, above and beyond the agenda of anyone in the film, and the way each level of the story works together or in contrast… that’s what gives this replay value where a lot of these films really only work effectively the first time. By the time the crushingly sad finale rolls around, “Shutter Island” has pretty much worn you out. It’s a huge meal, served up by Robert Richardson, hot off his lush and gorgeous work in “Inglourious Basterds,” delivering a visual feast of blacks and blues and hot color and deep shadow. Dante Ferretti’s production design is hyperbolic, like someone having a hazy fever dream, everything exaggerated and threatening. It’s not just a mental hospital or a prison island. It’s THE mental hospital and THE prison island. The use of models and CG miniatures and live-action location filming, all combined effortlessly, creates an otherworldly feel that is invisible. Most audiences won’t even realize how many effects they’re looking at in the movie, another sign of Scorsese’s insane control of the image at this point. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is a big part of the reason the film works at continually tightening the screws, scene after scene, right to the very end. She never gives you an out, a release, a reason to stop being tense. It’s pretty amazing work.
One very strange thing… I normally have a good ear for film scores, and I can’t help but talk about them as a separate element in my reviews because I think most great film scores can stand alone as a work of art. I love to write to film scores. In general, I pay attention to what’s playing in a film. But I can’t tell you what music is used in this film. I know there is a score. Or at least I suppose there is. But I have no idea who composed it, how much is original versus source, or what any of it sounds like. I remember the screening vividly, the sights of everything, the mood… but not the score. I don’t think that’s a knock on the score, either… just an odd anomaly. I think I just got so caught up in the overall vibe of the piece that I wasn’t thinking about the individual elements.
Even if “Shutter Island” doesn’t totally add up for you, I think most audiences are going to be rattled along the way. It’s an amazing exercise by one of cinema’s masters, and a dark look at how far we’ll go to keep secrets, even from ourselves.
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