Shutter Island might be the only psychological thriller abetted by a lack of interest in the psyche.
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Like the finest filmic mindfucks of the last fifteen years or so — most mechanically Abre los ojos, most poetically Mulholland Drive — Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is less an object to be appreciated or interpreted than a foggy, craggy terrain to be topographically charted. Scorsese doesn’t penetrate his source material’s premise enough for the movie to be much more than an exceptionally well-made albeit nebulous map of repressed memory, delusion, and post-traumatic stress, but the film embodies an aesthetic as unique and precise as it is planate and superficial. It’s a sumptuous entry in the Scorsese canon, and maybe the director’s most successful attempt at marrying his uniquely beatific visual grit with canny emotional resonance. It is, also, like most of Scorsese’s oeuvre, very fun at the expense of subtlety — those swooping, raptor-esque cameras and flashbulb cuts — though not in an exhausting, unabashed Tarantino sort of way, and as such it will likely continue to push back against the viewer through repeated screenings in a manner unlike The Aviator or even the splashier but far more morally glib The Departed.
It must be said as early on as possible that much of the movie’s difficulty lies in its bevy of blemishes. It is a benign thriller, a deceptively simple riddle, another foolhardy Marty homage to the joys of cinematic excess, and — as has been the case with all Scorsese/DiCaprio collaborations thus far — an exercise in big, dumb studiology that, for all its attempts at maintaining a modicum of abstraction, never quite consolidates its Hollywood Heart with its subversive brain. As a result, distinct elements of staunch commercialism and sly art-house muscle both appear conspicuous. But these intermittently irritating pockmarks on the movie’s skull add to its singularity, too — we might say that the landscape of Shutter Island has “character,” a euphemism for easily forgivable failure — and given the protagonist’s unreliability one could lose ontself in the tortuous maze of insidious histrionics, wooden exposition, and fleeting anachronisms. It’s a crutch too often leaned on in the psychological thriller genre, but for once it might be fair to identify the particular shortcomings of Shutter Island as crucially diegetic — most notably the narrative’s herky-jerky way of dispensing information and its almost laughably ornate flashbacks.
The film’s bumpy consciousness stream adopts the amorphous internal monologue of an addled mind — that of U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio), who in 1954 visits the Ashecliff Hospital for the criminally insane on Shutter Island in order to investigate a dangerous patient’s mysterious disappearance. Given the milieu and the near-certainty that we are, at all times, seeing the universe as Daniels does — as he and his partner Chuck Aule (a sensitively masculine Mark Ruffalo) approach the hospital by truck the camera shakes and stalls while quizzically staring ahead at what’s to come beyond the grim, steely main gates — the urge to psychoanalyze the film’s content is irresistible. But movies like Shutter Island are inherently adverse to behavioral therapy — they wear their determinist baggage and auteurist debts on their sleeve, refusing to play analysand for long, perversely challenging and trapping those who try to reach within them and retrieve useful meaning. No, this requires a different technique: A combination of common and non-sense, a system that tweaks and twaddles the scientific method just as readily and ruthlessly as Shutter Island toys with its audience’s notions of reality and good taste.
Perhaps it’s the bald Ben Kingsley, who plays half of the Ashecliff Hospital’s resident doctoral duo (the other member is Max Von Sydow, looking more Aryan and more menacing every day), or maybe it’s Scorsese’s tendency to spill significance about the surface of his films while neglecting their guts, like a chicken laying eggs with yolks on the outside of their empty shells. But I found some quality of Shutter Island sharply reminiscent of phrenology, an obsolete and rather crackpot science founded on the principle that the qualities of an individual’s personality are physically manifested in the lumps and indentations of their cranium. In the mid-19th century, this study was all the rage — it’s referenced cryptically in several of Poe’s short stories, another easy connection to the timbre of Shutter Island — and “doctors” practicing the discipline identified thirty-seven phrenological organs reaching from where the back of the skull meets the neck up to the lower forehead. And among the attributes these organs are said to control are psychological apparati such as eventuality — the memory of events — and philoprogenitiveness — parental love. They read, in other words, like a checklist of Shutter Island‘s pet themes, cerebral triumphs, and Psych 101 blunders.
Even more essentially, however, the knotted (il)logic at the bedrock of phrenology’s development — an event inspired by genuine scientific progress, honest ignorance, and a human desire to create easy answers out of a frustratingly complex bleeding edge — might be considered a first cousin to the mix of charlatanry, technical innovation, and melodramatic spectacle that not only spawned the industry of cinema but also informs much of Scorsese’s ethos, as well as that of his direct predecessors (e.g., Powell and Pressburger). Just as phrenology yanked pearls of authentic neurological knowledge from the brain’s labyrinthian innards and neatly but erroneously organized them as surface-level nodes, Scorsese steals artful enthusiasm from his film’s subtext and splatters it across the anamorphic widescreen via intuitive editing, empathetic cinematography, and over-actively symbolic storytelling. Phrenology is a pseudo-science, one of the most entertaining out there. Scorsese is an erstatz artist, one of the most accomplished and ingenuous the U.S. has ever produced. And Shutter Island, while not his magnum opus by any imaginative stretch, is undoubtedly a faux-psychological masterpiece.
How to Read Character: A New Illustrated Handbook of Phrenology and Physiognomy
The propensities or animal organs are placed next to the spinal column, in the base of the brain, and in close connection with the body. Rising above these, we come into the region of intellect; while above that, in the coronal region, are the moral or spiritual sentiments, through which we are brought into relation with God.1
1. AMATIVENESS; 2. PHILOPROGENITIVENESS; 3. ADHESIVENESS; 4. INHABITIVENESS; and 5. CONTINUITY.
Love — conjugal and filial, amorous and domestic, controlled and reckless — haunts the conceit of Shutter Island from its opening scene, where Teddy Daniels speaks of his widowdom to new partner Chuck while staving off seasickness on the deck of a small ferry churning wildly beneath an agitated gray sky. It might even be, as with the placement of the phrenological organ, perpetually at the un-focused back of Teddy’s, and by extension, the film’s, head. Teddy’s remorse is an antique agony that belches up sulfur (we learn that Teddy’s wife died in a spontaneous fire whose arsonist progenitor was confined to Ashecliff), blood (Teddy’s nightmares are florid affairs with brilliant, swishing red curtains, flapping airborne leaflets and leaky, crimson-streaked men and women) and ice (as a WWII soldier Teddy aided the liberation of Dachau; women and children with frozen, sepulcher faces make frequent appearances in his hallucinations).
As the plot froths over and we learn that the target of the central woman-hunt, Rachel Solando (an emaciated Emily Mortimer), drowned her three children after losing a husband to World War II, the pulp of Teddy’s dreams gradually appears less amorous and more maternal — regard how he oneirically clutches at his dead wife’s bleeding belly before Scorsese’s digital effects reduce her and the couple’s cozy apartment to ashen wind. And while Teddy’s self-prescribed mission is peppered with more than a dash of selfish vengeance, the blend of wrenching guilt at his core has led him to overcompensate for past follies by maniacally defending the vulnerable (he is consistently “indicted” by Holocaust victims in his mind for the western world’s slowness to intervene). History is a sequence of hegemonic events that Teddy can’t keep in order, despite his being cast in many of those events as predator and perpetrator. Rachel Solando must be punished for hurting helpless individuals that nature assigned to her care, just as Ashecliff itself must be scrutinized for the odd, red scare brainwashing rumors drifting about it. And Teddy’s punishment, as he sees it, is to somberly patrol for those who breach the limits of subalternation and snap the sadists back into place.
6. COMBATIVENESS; 7. DESTRUCTIVENESS; 8. ALIMENITIVENESS; 9. ACQUISITIVENESS; 10. SECRETIVENESS; and 11. CAUTIOUSNESS.
Many of Scorsese’s films bear an indirect debt to “transcendental” directors such as Ozu and Dreyer in their spatial fetishism. But unlike that of Ordet or Floating Weeds, the tone of Scorsese’s space — what the “stage” is saying dramatically — is typically of little importance to his camera, and the masterful mise-en-scène on display bears little relation to what it’s rendering (that lovingly dizzy arc shot signaling the end of After Hours could have been caressing any protagonist or non-descript room). But in Shutter Island the low angles and hard zooms and skulking trucks are nervously ornate; for once Scorsese seems to be in on whatever manipulative put-on the characters are exacting, rather than being awe-struck by their puissance (it helps that DiCaprio is not Robert De Niro).
This makes the period setting of the movie, gleaming in the headlights of those bulbous, classic cars, seem dangerous — we continuously cringe at the horror of being trapped in the medical limitations of the ’50s — and also intensifies the nocuousness of Teddy’s surface-level descent from curious but superior outsider (as a federal marshal) to hospital orderly (Teddy and Chuck prowl the grounds incognito as attendants) to bedridden bedlamite (after getting caught in a hurricane, Teddy succumbs to a feverish migraine and bunks with a collection of patients). As with the slowly tightening sentence length and cold logic of a Borges fiction, we feel the blinding opulence of Teddy’s dream sequences and the desultory nature of his motives gradually closing in on him (did he take this case to avenge his wife’s death, or to blow the lid off a sick HUAC plot, or what?). When the film opens, he’s heaving into a sink and telling himself to get it together; by the home stretch he’s being told by Ashecliff’s warden (a withered Ted Levine) that he’s nothing but a combative animal being continually held back from aggression by a thin membrane of social responsibility.
Aspiring and Governing Organs
12. APPROBATIVENESS; 13. SELF-ESTEEM; and 14. FIRMNESS.
The sinisterly picturesque lighthouse on the island entrances us from the moment it’s passed by Teddy and Chuck’s ferry. It’s a fitting, if grandiose, symbol for a story with a federal investigation at its center to employ — where most beacons evade catastrophe and death with illumination, this one seems to obfuscate gnarly truths with subterfuge to the point of peril and alienation. As our curiosity in the dark monolith climbs, Teddy learns — via an extended dialog of lunacy in the ugly bowels of Ward C, the heavily guarded sector for problem patients — that Ashecliff’s cruel and unusual experimentation occurs in the lighthouse, and that, furthermore, it must be housing the man who indirectly killed Teddy’s wife: the drifter Andrew Laeddis. Teddy’s wounded, cancerous passion consumes him, and the fixation strains his relationship with Chuck to the point that his partner refuses to work with him. Teddy isn’t following any fruitful protocol or “hunch” — he’s whimsically shifting gears with dream-powered ratiocination.
The two part ways on a rocky precipice (both literal and figurative), and when Teddy returns to retrieve Chuck after locating a safe path to the lighthouse, he finds no one — aside from, very possibly, though with the vagueness of The Headless Woman‘s potential killing, the outline of a body at the cliff’s beachy bottom, disappearing and reappearing with the cadence of the tide. The mission marches on in the hopes of finding more than a corpse or a mound of torpid, lobotomized flesh, but at the bottom of that treacherous cliff is a figure — whether or not a mirage — saturated with noirish irony. Just as Laeddis’ uncontrollable burn-lust scorched innocent lives that failed to factor into his arson logic, Teddy’s unkempt anger and jaundice towards Ashecliff endangers everyone involved with him. Teddy’s Nazi nightmares, tangled with the tortured memories of his wife’s hearth-appropriate pulchritude, reek of self-blaming clichés — but tossing them off a cliff in the form of a seemingly trustworthy partner only proves punitive.
15. CONSCIENTIOUSNESS; 16. HOPE; 17. SPIRITUALITY; 18. VENERATION; and 19. BENEVOLENCE.
The entirety of Ashecliffe drips off-kilter, subterranean sadism — when Teddy and Chuck arrive at the film’s start, the deputy warden (John Carroll Lynch, constantly shifting dialects) welcomes them smarmily and then orders them to relinquish their firearms with a flourish of bureaucratic braggadocio. If that’s the first sign of unconventional trouble, the trend is shrewdly continued not in subtly oppressive restrictions — though the marshals are supposed to stay out of Ward C, and are denied access to seemingly unimportant patient records — but in little lines of dialog with terribly fascinating, syntaxy droppings and in ever-so-slightly surreal color schemes. The quarters of the über-professional Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), situated in a mock Tudor mansion on Ashecliff’s grounds, are the anticipated polar opposite of the hospital’s bland concrete: Lush with sanguine curtains and carpets, dark, glossy wood, glinting chandeliers, and a jovial fireplace, it’s homey enough to make one check the floorboards for body fragments (we assume the obstinate luxury must be hiding something). Furthermore when Cawley describes the impossibility of Rachel Solando’s escape, it’s in abstract (i.e., unhelpful) rather than in material terms. “It’s as if she evaporated, straight through the walls,” he intones.
When Rachel reappears, it’s just as transcendentally warped — she’s found traipsing about the island without a mark on her, despite the fact that she was truant during a violent storm. Teddy interviews her, significantly while in a hospital uniform, and she at first confuses him for her dead husband before becoming fearful and demanding to know Teddy’s true identity. The scene, nimbly edited by Thelma Schoonmaker and shot by Robert Richardson in green, pasty shadow, is one of the film’s most intrepid and affecting set-pieces: Nearly halfway into the running time, Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis tork the presumed moral imperative of Teddy’s investigation from partially reparative (helping to control a killer is surely meant to socially compensate for his inability to prevent the malignant outbursts of both Laeddis and Hitler) to purely solipsistic (Rachel returns with such ease it’s as though the case was imagined). Rachel’s ferocious screams of “who are you” flung in Teddy’s direction are hardly subtextual clues of our protagonist’s unreliability, but their emotive force inspires us to doubt not only who Teddy purports to be but the behavior we’ve been observing him exhibit, and even the terrain we’ve trespassed along with him. Does Dr. Cawley’s home bleed with frenzied color and scratchy Mahler as violently as it appears? Does the rain really strike the windows with such bullet-like propulsion? And why does Teddy’s dream wife burn so well, so painlessly, so like thin, crumpled, paper?
20. CONSTRUCTIVENESS; 21. IDEALITY; 22. IMITATION; and 23. MIRTHFULNESS.
The most dyspeptic swallow of Shutter Island — the most noticeable indentation in its brainpan — is not the overzealous twist that causes the film’s plot to collapse in on itself, but the didactic manner in which it’s uncoiled. Like that of the far more handicapped Vanilla Sky before it, the final act is a buffet of junky exposition that blinds the film’s mystery with needlessly mechanical illumination — the details are piled up and presented as a reasonable explanation for what we’ve seen, but they only connect fantastical fabrications with their realistic counterparts. A far more intriguing question is raised, though not in interrogative form, by Teddy himself while charily chatting up Dr. Naehring (Von Sydow) and passive-aggressively confronting his Teutonic roots: “A man’ll do just about anything to get away from what he’s done.” In other words, we learn what Teddy’s done but not precisely why he’s fled from its gruesomely implicating grasp; as with what he’s witnessed in World War II, it’s considered simply too “shocking,” too “horrible,” for even a man of Teddy’s composition to comprehend.
But Teddy plays the part of a veteran marshal widower (almost) too well to conform to the plot’s dusty, answering machinations. We understand his leap-frogging obsessions from Rachel Solando to Andrew Laeddis to the lobotomizing lighthouse as more than simply a mental distraction: He is, in his skewed interpretation of national service, making peace with hurt and responsibility he never deserved to be burdened with. And like most of us, he completes this by imitating a template that doesn’t exist — by creating a new “Teddy Daniels” with a set of characteristics most likely gleaned from television, books, and various vocational experiences. If only that immaculate image, that foolproof façade, had an inch of wiggle-room for ironic happiness — surely a man who’s been through a death camp and had a wife burn to a crisp can laugh at life’s cruelty, if only once or twice, and if only half-heartedly? Teddy’s unflappable sobriety is a chink in his, and in the film’s, armor, and one of a handful of indicators that what we’re watching is more reductive than it lets on. If only Scorsese, DiCaprio, and their writers had submerged more fearlessly into the maze of Teddy’s pain without the convenient breadcrumbs of a disorder to guide their way out, they may have fashioned a more convincingly duplicitous character — one who fakes joy just as easily as he fakes casual empathy.
24. INDIVIDUALITY; 25. FORM; 26. SIZE; 27. WEIGHT; 28. COLOR; 29. ORDER; 30. CALCULATION; and 31. LOCALITY.
The tone of Shutter Island, from the swinging peripheral chains of the initial bathroom hurling to the final, orange-tinged, postcard-like seascape, is decidedly uneasy. The modern composer-fanboy score, compiled with esoteric charm by Robbie Robertson, provides an undercurrent of subliminal orchestral dissonance — those Ligeti movements have a way of eating into you while still seeming calm. And Scorsese wrangles some marvelously unpredictable performances: We never know when Mark Ruffalo in particular will play along submissively or get ruffled out of shape (a fairly congenial conversation with Von Sydow’s doctor has him bristling, but he buys into Teddy’s conspiracy theories without many questions). But if the Ashecliff scenes, which provide the bulk of the film’s storyline, achieve an ominous, threatening feel through their arcane architecture, enigmatic characters, and moody lighting patterns — it seems a somewhat crepuscular milieu, forever stuck between day and night, deception and veracity, illness and recovery — Teddy’s flashbacks and fantasies are like tattered tears in their steady fabric that let in beams of poison light.
The dreamy intrusions are quite uneven formally, vacillating between vibrant, nearly phantasmagoric hues that cascade with slow-motion numinousness — such as in the scenes depicting the suicide of a death camp commandant and the conflagrating apartment that killed Teddy’s wife — and drab but smooth essays at combat realism — like when Teddy and his platoon execute a formidable round-up of surrendered Nazis. The schism is intentional, of course, and for the same reason as the wavering plate tectonics of Ashecliff: Scorsese is telegraphing the distinction between perception and imagination (forget about reality). But the difference is not so easily discerned. Teddy didn’t actually see his wife burn to death, which is why she ignites without feeling and smolders like a rolled-up newspaper while acidic backlight haloes her clue-dropping frame — it’s a speculative synaptic misfire. But the consciously composed, Powell and Pressburger-inspired beauty of the presumably true-to-life Dachau interiors — with documents and curtains gracefully flapping and soaking up rivulets of fresh German blood — is at fierce odds with the more Schindler’s List-like death-camp grounds, where Teddy finds stacks of blue-lipped cadavers. It’s almost as if Teddy has constructed an internal Ashecliffe as a way of compartmentalizing his trauma: The moribund commandant’s office in Dachau mirrors the supercilious décor of Cawley’s mansion; the shriveled POWs and Final Solution victims strewn about the camp are like the unforgiving impartiality of Ward C, and are reminders as apt as Ward C’s inhabitants of the cruelty capable of man; and the supernal but abysmal radiance of Teddy’s inflammable wife reminds us of the eerie nexus of fact and fiction residing in Ashecliff’s gorgeous lighthouse, a difficult obstacle Teddy is determined to face. Perhaps the structure of the institution is, despite its darkened passages, a safe harbor in Teddy’s mind?
32. EVENTUALITY; 33. TIME; 34. TUNE; and 35. LANGUAGE.
As a piece of literature — of analysis-worthy text belonging to a narrative tradition — Shutter Island is condescending to its audience, both showing and telling with mundane detail where it needn’t do either beyond innuendo. Viewers at all familiar with the thriller-mystery genre, even at its most commercial — there’s some Twilight Zone aftertaste to the pat, strangely socio-political ending — will likely determine the eventual direction of the plot not too long after Rachel Solando’s anticlimactic return. Despite being a powerful scene, it effectively debunks the film’s initial premise as a rouse (no big surprise), though the reasons for the bait-and-switch aren’t revealed in their entirety until the movie’s final, wooden moments. But rather than utilizing the remaining hour and half of screen time to surreptitiously allude to the “real” storyline we suspect is concurrently developing alongside Teddy’s feverish search, Scorsese jars us back and forth between spectacular nightmare and prosaic, if slightly off-balance, verisimilitude until he assumes that he can ditch the mind games and uncloak the scenario’s bald gears. But — without providing too abrupt of a spoiler — isn’t the connection to post-traumatic therapy obvious from the moment a dead wife is mentioned, from the second we’re flashed the image of a Mahler vinyl surrounded by blood and paperwork? Even if the final “twist” of the film were omitted, wouldn’t the primary appeal of story still lie in the manner that Teddy means to confront his demons by untangling this precarious and utterly too-close-to-home head-scratcher?
A lengthy flashback essentially serves as the final act of Shutter Island, and the intentions are obvious. Scorsese means to consolidate loose ends, to slam a thundering lid down on still-unanswered questions, and more importantly to show that he’s made a serious dramatic film rather than a cornball whodunit. But what has he made? At the opening of the film, mood is the main concern — the composition of angles, sounds, faces, and gestures that evoke dread and discomfort — and Scorsese is at the peak of his power. At the finale, the focus is meant to be people — specifically Teddy, who’s putatively performed a mental breakthrough by acknowledging a horrific event he participated in. But Scorsese yields to formal temptations that occlude the moment’s heartbreaking tenor. The edits are too deliberate, the performances too overwhelmed, the domestic setting of the tragedy too Elysian — and are those Ophelias jutting out from the watery reeds in the backyard? There is, in other words, perhaps no other director more ill-fitted to a story with the ol’ “it’s-all-in-your-head” denouement: Scorsese injects so much cinematic ardor, craftsmanship, and history into every frame that it all looks like a dream.
36. CAUSALITY; and 37. COMPARISON.
Pauline Kael once aphoristically mused that great movies are rarely perfect movies — the implication being that artistic aspirations of excellence nearly always require risk, and that with risk comes even more opportunity for failure than what’s expected at 24 frames per second. What she surely didn’t anticipate, however, was that the statement could be so readily applicable to auteur criticism, which often seeks to extract a director’s personal, visionary style out of films both magisterial and abysmal by way of hearty analytical squeezes and patient glosses. Whatever the discrepancy in motive or process, there is, certainly, in both Kael and auteur theory, the capacity for forgiveness.
Part of what makes Shutter Island such a perplexing movie to scrutinize is that there’s the constant urge to exonerate due to the many virtues on display — even as you’re not quite sure that it needs forgiving. The film is undoubtedly an angular farrago — there are chunks and granules of cinematographic aplomb and stylistic weakness, intoxicating suggestion and plodding over-explanation, kinetic action and exposition-laden longeurs — but there’s a form and a rightness to the perverse binary pairs being indulged (even if one of them is success and failure). And if the movie’s problematic nature exempts it from any qualitative category beyond Scorsese’s “curio” canon — including, among others, The Last Temptation of Christ and The King of Comedy — there’s a piquant appropriateness to that judgment as well: The story of a man like Teddy Daniels doesn’t quite deserve a prestige film (note the time of year it was released, as well, in the dead of February) or even a termite triumph. It deserves a movie that might be to art what phrenology is to science: Valuable only as an indicator of cultural mistakes, worthy of study only for intertextual importance or a pure lark.
Shutter Island is not the film it believes itself to be — like Teddy Daniels, it’s a guilty cauldron boiling over with effervescent personality anxieties. Despite all the mishandled behavioral and psychological tropes, this is a clearly superstitious movie, as unhinged an exploration of Scorsese’s altar boy-infused, otherworldly curiosities as any of the director’s more “spiritual” works. The ending foolishly asks the audience to buy into an utterly materialist universe that the film itself doesn’t believe in the slightest — there is, surely, the possibility of mental rehabilitation and cosmic justice in Scorsese’s world, but they exist side-by-side with palpably lyrical, ghostly memories and an imagined woman who seems more freshly quotidian than any other character (Teddy meets an alternate, fugitive Rachel played by Patricia Clarkson while lost on the island; the denouement dismisses her as a hallucination).
Furthermore, Shutter Island might be the only psychological thriller abetted by a lack of interest in the psyche. In place of Freud and Jung there are traces of the spell cast by other films (e.g., The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) and by Mahler’s quartets; works of art that hypnotize the eyes, the ears, the gut, and the heart, but fail to tease the mind. One wants to call the movie Scorsese’s expressionistic riff on the mystery film — he’s stolen and souped up the motifs and filled the gaps with hard cutting, blistering light cues, and gelatinous slo-mo. The result is a thing of eerie, strained beauty that’s all wrong, but all the more fascinating for it: Shutter Island feels like a psychological thriller without having to think like one.