Shutter Island: A Thriller Out Of Time?
Posted on Saturday February 13, 2010, 20:55 by Damon Wise
It's been interesting watching the reactions to Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, from the trailer alone. People seem to forget that artists have a fractious relationship with their times, that sometimes their work arrives out of synch with public taste, and that sometimes their art takes chances that even their most loyal followers won't accept. The irony, of course, is that nobody knows this better than Scorsese, who has conducted a personal journey through the film cultures of three very cine-literate countries (Italy and the US, with Britain on its way) and directed a milestone documentary (No Direction Home) about the musician, poet and electric folklorist Bob Dylan, himself no stranger to controversy and public questioning. Along the way, the song remains the same; sometimes a contemporary audience isn't always sitting in the right seats to judge.
So what has Scorsese done to blot his copybook, in the wake of his most successful commercial run since the 70s and early 80s? Well, the arguments over Shutter Island appear to be raging over Scorsese's decision to embrace high melodrama: thrashing winds; crashing waves; thundering rain; a detective dressed like a tsunami-drenched Dana Andrews; an insane asylum right out of Dickens; a score with more threat and bombast than Bernard Herrmann's original theme for Cape Fear...
But the odd thing is, these things were all either in, or suggested by Dennis Lehane's novel, which, itself, takes the trappings of a period story, pulling in the tropes and paranoias of the early 50s – true and fictional – to weave its lurid story of a man grappling with his demons to find a sinister, unpalatable truth. For some reason, though, there is now a general consensus that Scorsese is, or should be, the master of the neo, and what he ought to have done with Shutter Island is take the conceit, unpack it, and do what he usually does in his filmmaking, which is either present the past with a modern eye, or explore the present with a wry detachment. But Shutter Island is an all-or-nothing kind of story; it was written with a certain irony, a certain political skew and a certain humour, and if you take that away, you're left with a daft airport novel, in which a would-be detective bites off more than he, and possible the reader, could ever bear to chew.
So if Scorsese has chosen to follow Lehane down his genre path, pouring gasoline on the B-movie flames that are already there, there has to be a reason. There is, of course, the purely practical matter that, as a film historian, Scorsese enjoys the spectacle and challenges of B-I-G movie-making, especially the classic kind, and here he achieves an amazing fusion of past and present by creating false perspectives that echo Hitchcock's use of back projection while using the picture-perfect CG tricks of today. But Scorsese is bright enough to realise that genre can't be used for genre's sake; there is a reason he is taking us into the old dark house – and it isn't for nostalgia.
It seems to me that, deep down, Shutter Island is a companion piece to Taxi Driver. Scorsese has revisited this character before, in the underrated Bringing Out The Dead, but he has never revisited the context. Like Travis Bickle, Leonardo DiCaprio's Teddy Daniels is a product of a war – the second, world one – and he is haunted by the things he has seen and done, things the general populace are unaware of and less than thankful for. Like Travis Bickle, he wants to do right, but being good is not easy for some: as we see in the trailer, Daniels is sickly, tormented, quick to anger and traumatised by a love affair that, however it ended, clearly did not end well.
Like Travis Bickle, Daniels wants to be the author of his own story, and this is where the film is being shortchanged even at the trailer stage. Scorsese is smart enough to know that, in times of crisis, escapism makes a major comeback: at this very moment, with very real wars raging in Afghanistan and Iraq, the most popular movie in the world deals with the rape and pillage of a fictional blue planet. Scorsese can see the paradox in this, and with this film, he is not trying to hide it: Shutter Island could not be more obvious about its construction, and it's not trying to fool us with its subtleties and sleights of hand. He could have made this film in Boston today, not off the coast of it in 1954, with flat, natural lighting and a cast of unknowns, but he chose not to. He chose to make a big, grand Hollywood movie, with Hollywood players, Hollywood ideas and even, dare I say it, more than a few Hollywood clichés.
Because no one knows better than Scorsese that, in times, of crisis, America retreats into itself, and, perversely, by playing up the structure he's critiquing the country's capacity for self-delusion, seeing grand plans and designs everywhere at the risk of losing its melancholic, troubled, individual identity – like Travis Bickle and Teddy Daniels. For now, Shutter Island made be too close to its time to see what it really is, and how political Scorsese's comment on escapism might actually be. Time will tell, and it may not be any time soon, but to borrow a line from Tarantino, this Wagnerian spectacle just might be his masterpiece.