At this point, he is really just fucking around, now that the Oscar business is behind him. And now, with his muse Dicaprio by his side, M. Night Scorsese is crafting shit that he once could do in his sleep. Maybe this is unfair criticism from someone rendered impossible to satisfy by masterpieces gone past. Still, when the big payoff is telegraphed early on (in the first act, if not the trailer), one is left with The Shining as filtered through Silent Hill without an unstoppable antagonist like Pyramid Head to inhabit our nightmares. The only truly frightening enemy is Leonardo Dicaprio with another Bawstin accent uncomfortably stapled to his mannered visage. Shutter Island is still a Scorsese film, and even at his worst, the guy can direct a decent movie. Even so, you are left wondering why he came up with a plotline so pedestrian, and a twist that is earned but way too familiar to be interesting.
Shutter Island starts off promisingly enough, with a far fetched (for good reason) setup that two federal marshals are sent to a craggy island in Boston Harbor to investigate the disappearance of a patient who appears to have melted through the walls. This is 1954, in the early days of psychiatry as a science, shortly after the development of chlorpromazine and lithium as treatments for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, respectively. Psychoanalysis and asylum-based treatment was in the process of being slowly marginalized in favor of biochemical methods and community-based treatment. Lest I mislead you, this film is not about science or anything resembling, but this becomes a part of the background (way the fuck back, mind you). Dicaprio plays Teddy Daniels, who has a history of violence and a drinking problem, a dead wife and kids, and who recently assisted in the liberation of Dachau and massacring the German soldiers stationed there. The flawed hero begins his story enroute to the island on the eve of a storm that will isolate him for the duration of the investigation. From the very beginning, the audience’s expectations are set on a slippery surface, as nobody acts like a normal human being or behaves in a rational fashion. The effect is disorienting, but this weirdness has good reason for being, which becomes evident as time goes on. The hero has fairly persistent migraines, nightmares, and what appears to be either hallucinations or he is the victim of directorial flourishes. Reality slips away as Teddy grows simultaneously closer and further from unearthing the secrets of Shutter Island.
If you are capable of reading between the lines, and you have seen a single thriller in the past decade, you know goddamn well what is going on, and so atmosphere becomes the sole source of entertainment. The brick buildings and well manicured lawns house most of the inmates of this institution for the criminally insane, while an old civil war fort houses the most dangerous of the criminals. The cells give way to dungeons filled with the sick and twisted, as though all schizophrenics were kept in dilapidated abattoirs of rusted iron and disintegrating concrete. But this is all symbolism at work, and none too subtle, as we descend into the tortured innards of Teddy’s mind. The parallels between the escaped patient’s life and crimes and Teddy’s are made clear early in the proceedings. Teddy the federal marshal is uniquely terrible at both interrogation and investigation with a manner infused equally by sarcasm and contempt. The director of the institution, the staff physicians, and wardens all exude duplicity and menace, but this is because of our protagonist’s perspective. So even though each character acts unnecessarily dickish from start to finish, this is intentional as filtered through that shopworn technique of the unreliable protagonist. Don’t give the inconsistencies and outright idiocies of the script a second thought; the film is entertaining enough with solid performances and some wonderfully unbalanced imagery. Forgettable, but one could find a worse distraction.
The point of view of the paranoid schizophrenic is presented in a somewhat effective way; the doctors, the drugs, and the psychiatric analysis are all viewed as fun and games set up by nefarious enemies as far as the mentally ill are concerned. Every word and gesture is seen as an attack upon an impervious exterior, making adherence to medication extraordinarily difficult for inpatients, let alone those treated in a community-based setting. Generally the paranoid schizophrenic is less of an adroit chess master than Dicaprio’s character and more resembles Sir Digby Chicken Caesar, but never mind. The overall payoff, if I may spoil the living shit out of Shutter Island, is that the entire hospital was involved in a role playing exercise to allow Dicaprio’s character one last chance to recognize the horrors of his past and the impact of his violent crimes, kind of like a massive treasure hunt with the occasional near-death experience and skull-fractured fellow patient to spice things up. The idea of letting a dangerous prisoner run riot over an island, traipse across rocky cliffs, and pummel other patients by way of therapy is intensely stupid. Still, I found this intriguing as a reflection of the decline of psychotherapy as medications became the vanguard of treatment for psychiatric illness. A second viewing will probably reveal even larger plot holes that would accommodate a jai alai field, but I do credit Shutter Island for two things. One, I found Leonardo Dicaprio less ridiculous than usual – a fine actor, but of limited range and whom should stay away from any role requiring an accent. Two, I appreciate a filmmaker even attempting to do something sensible with psychiatry, a field that has probably never been represented in a meaningful or earth-like way in film. Apart from Ordinary People, no movie has ever come close to portraying psychiatrists as anything other than Mengele interns looking to totally run some voltage through patients who don’t mop the floor correctly. Though it is true I have never met a single shrink who did not appear to have a few bolts loose, the same can be said of any physician. Or anyone, really. Mental illness and normality are all part of the same blurry spectrum. I leave you with a fun fact: frontal lobotomies were performed in the United States and Europe until the mid-1980’s.