There ain’t no life on Shutter Island

FILM: Shutter Island: I won’t be able to talk about this movie without at least mildly spoiling the ending, so if that’s going to be a concern, best to stop right here. But it really shouldn’t be a concern, because… well, because the ending is kind of dumb. And the odds are, if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve already guessed what it is. But fair warning and all that, because I’d hate to be the first guy to ruin the No. 1 movie in America for you.

If that sounds like starting this (review? discussion? rambling, likely unread note?) on a negative note, I should probably point out that I didn’t dislike Shutter Island either. It’s a well-made film, and more than capable when it comes to providing jump-scares and a malevolent atmosphere. But that’s all that it is, and I was expecting more from Scorsese.

The film opens with fog, and a ship emerging from a misty nowhere, heading towards an equally mist-shrouded and impossibly foreboding island. To underscore the island’s foreboding nature, the score introduces one of its motifs, a recurring bass thrum only slightly less subtle than the familiar “dunnn-dun” of Jaws. Scorsese’s trying to communicate two things at this point; the first, as established, is foreboding. The second, and probably more important thing (which in retrospect I wish I’d embraced) is that this is pulp. Not just in the sense that DiCaprio’s US Marshall talks like a gumshoe from a hard-boiled noir, although that’s certainly the case, but in that despite any seemingly highfalutin pretensions, it’s only really meant to be enjoyed on a visceral level. It’s a page-turner, not a ponderer.

In that context, Scorsese mostly succeeds. He gets first-rate performances from the entire cast, from DiCaprio through the overly polite Ben Kingsley and on down to single-scene turns from Jackie Earle Haley and Elias Koteas (who’s also in the excellent Woody Harrelson superhero flick Defendor). He keeps the tension constantly rising through well-timed revelations and constant hints of just-beyond-the-shadows horrors. Even the more audacious effects — dream sequences with backwards-flowing smoke, editing that always feels just a hair off of where the cut should be — work as far as keeping the audience ill at ease.

Things go astray when Scorsese steers the film into more abstract terrain. A number of reviews have compared Shutter Island to The Shining, but that comparison really just highlights what Shutter Island is lacking. As bizarre as DiCaprio’s nightmares and hallucinations get, they are always clearly tied to events in his past and present. In fact, the symbolism gets overbearing at times, with recurring images of ash, fire and water that are all tidily explained by the film’s last couple of scenes. A big part of what makes The Shining so terrifying is that it doesn’t make sense. An elevator full of blood, evil twins, a man in a bear costume — these things might make sense in the context of the original novel, but in the case of the movie, they seem to emerge whole from some unknowable id. They make the hotel a place of unfathomable evil. For all the musical cues and lightning strikes, Shutter Island isn’t about a sinister place. It’s about DiCaprio’s internal struggle with sanity.

Which, y’know, is OK. Scorsese isn’t making a haunted house movie, per se, and it wouldn’t be fair to criticize him for not making the movie I thought he was making. The problem is, that struggle and its psychological underpinnings never felt particularly fleshed out. They mostly just felt… obligatory isn’t quite the right word, but it’s close. You don’t set a movie in a mental hospital without the intention of questioning a character’s sanity, and while the conspiracy angle at least maintains doubts about where the plot is going, the ending is unambiguous enough to make much of the movie feel like a cheat. Not because it doesn’t earn its ending — everything from the fog-shrouded introduction to lines about the nature of protective delusions to the details that gradually emerge in DiCaprio’s dreams makes for a natural progression to the big reveal. It feels like a cheat precisely because everything builds so naturally to the ending, and yet the end is treated as if it’s a revelation, including a detailed flashback where a few lines of dialogue would’ve sufficed. A little more ambiguity would have made for a much more haunting end.

I will say, though, that the ending was redeemed by the last line of dialogue, which offers a justification for DiCaprio’s mental state. And a scene with the Shutter Island institution’s warden is creepy enough to make you wish that he’d been in a good deal more of the film. It’s certainly a well-executed film. It just never rises above its pulp underpinnings.

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