Right now, I’m the 67th patient. I just visited Scorsese’s Shutter Island and I’m still there. I don’t want to leave.
It’s been worming around in my mind. Here is a noir thriller that feels eerily familiar, and yet it is so original it’s a wonder why it wasn’t made years ago. I think that is a reason someone like Scorsese attached himself to direct, who is just as great of a film historian as he is a filmmaker. The one informs the other. It is not surprising he sits down with his cast to watch classic noir thrillers like Out of the Past before filming.
Stylistically, this film is a major departure for Scorsese. Perhaps another reason he was drawn to the material. Compared to his previous films, this territory is claustrophobic and restrained. Yet I can’t imagine the material working as well as it did with any other director. Paranoia lends itself very well to a claustrophobic setting. I can’t imagine a better setting than an island that houses the criminally insane, where the only way out is a ferry (unless there’s a storm, and oh is there a storm). The time of the setting is perfect: post world war II, where there is a heightened sense of paranoia. It was the seed for the noir genre. In that sense, Scorsese returns to a genre’s origins. Could that be why it feels so familiar? The setting takes good advantage of our pre-conceptions. For instance, lighthouses are innately creepy. It makes great sense to me why it becomes a pivotal part of the story.
An approaching storm opens the film. It ends on a quiet sunset. Leo’s Teddy emerges from a fog, literally and figuratively. From Teddy’s memories, we aren’t sure that where he has come from is any better than where he is heading. As the audience, we’re in a limbo from the start of the movie. We’re asking questions almost immediately.
I was able to anticipate the entire conceit of the story from the beginning. So I paid attention to clues that supported my theory, and what I discovered was a growing uncertainty. Soon I was doubting myself. Doubling back on what I believed. Teddy’s motivations shift slightly during the course of the story. At one point, he wants to kill the man he believes set fire to his wife. At another point, he thinks mad scientist experiments are happening and as a federal marshal feels emboldened to blow the lid off the place and expose the island’s creepy operation. At another point, his only motivation is getting off the island. I don’t recall a character in recent memory with so many different priorities.
Let’s say you watch the film knowing the conceit of the story. Even if you attempt to match up the pieces that would presumably fit, there are holes everywhere. The puzzle is never complete. There is just enough wiggle room for disturbing portents. That’s what will keep me coming back to Shutter Island.
Since I own Out of the Past on DVD, I am going to take a look at that film next and hopefully I can do a comparative analysis with Shutter Island.