Some movies, like some fine wines, can only be truly appreciated on a second taste. The first sip prepares the palette; the next one lets the flavours explode. Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is the cinematic equivalent, a movie you watch once for the screwdriver twist, then again (and possibly again...) to appreciate its full-bodied substance.
Stepping off the ferry onto Shutter Island, a craggy rock in Boston Harbour, US Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) receives a hostile welcome from the staff of Ashecliffe Asylum. The guards finger their pump-action shotguns suspiciously. “You act like insanity is catching,” jokes Daniels. On a first viewing you smile along with him.
Schlock and awe
Second time around, though, the scene has a sly irony. Now we know why corrections officers are so edgy around Daniels. We also understand why the affable questions of partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) are more interested in our widowed hero’s well-being – “You OK , boss?” – than the investigation into the disappearance of patient 67 (Emily Mortimer).
But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you. “This is a game,” a scarred nutter (Jackie Earle Haley) warns Daniels halfway through the labyrinthine plot. “You’re a rat in a maze.” And so are we. Even when you think you know the way out, it’s hard to be sure the exit is really an exit (just Google ‘Shutter Island theories’ and you’ll see how many people are still stuck on the rock).
That’s how it’s meant to be. Scorsese’s lavishly staged throwback to B-movie noir is a tricky pulp fiction snaring everyone in its Rube Goldberg mousetrap. Flaunting his cineaste knowledge, the director’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s bestselling paperback draws us into a world that seems immediately familiar, riffing on Sam Fuller’s noir classic Shock Corridor, Val Lewton’s mercurial RKO horror movies, Hitchcock’s greatest hits (DiCaprio’s cliff-face scramble is pure North By Northwest) and even his own ’91 remake of Cape Fear.
Set in 1954, in the nervy days of the Cold War, Shutter Island plays up its schlock horror devices – thunderstorms, fog, gore – but finds meat in the pulp. As a thriller, it’s more talky than taut, Laeta Kalogridis’ screenplay happy to weave an intricate tapestry out of its diverse themes: from the CIA mind control experiments to the fractured moral landscape that emerged after WW2. In a world that has witnessed the Holocaust and the H-bomb, suggests the film, what hope for sanity, goodness or inner peace? “Wounds can create monsters,” warns Max von Sydow’s ex-Nazi, as DiCaprio’s matinee idol looks gradually hollow into despair.
Beneath the schlock lurks an impressive Hollywood thriller with the balls to toy with hefty themes. Scorsese doesn’t shy away from the source material, either, his disturbing Dachau flashbacks turning the execution of Nazi guards into a breathtaking tracking shot that places us downwind of the flying bullets. It’s a powerful cinematic moment – but it also hints at just how confrontational the filmmaker’s method is.
Attacking its audience from all sides, Shutter Island enjoys torturing us. How else to explain the film’s refusal to give up its secrets after one, two, or even half-a-dozen viewings? “Which would be worse?” one character wonders in the film’s closing moments. “To live as a monster, or die as a good man?” Such posers hover in the head long after Marty has pulled the shutters down on his mad, fine film.
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