There have been a number of films of late dealing with the effect of war on the psychologies of those who experience it, plots built around the chaos that manifests in post-war American mentalities, presenting us with protagonists who are altered in some way. So disturbed are these ex-soldiers that they can no longer exist in the world apart from war. Films such as “The Hurt Locker” and “Brothers,” both modern war films, featured stories about soldiers who couldn’t find relief, or had a long road ahead of them in the attempt.
Now comes Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” a film that is, in part, about post-traumatic stress disorder, or more accurately how it may have been viewed by psychiatrists in 1954. It is also thoroughly a noir, and in the hands of Scorsese, that lover of cinema, it is an effective one, classic in its storytelling, tone and character types.
Indeed, Scorsese seems honour bound to be an exception to the rule that “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.”
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels, assigned to investigate the disappearance of a patient of Ashecliffe Hospital, located on the fictional Shutter Island in the Boston Harbour. Ashecliffe is essentially an insane asylum in which violent criminals are treated by Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), who seems to hover somewhere between favouring lobotimization and psychopharmacology as effective measures for treating patients. (“You can learn a lot simply by talking with someone,” he offers significantly.) Teddy is accompanied by partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), always there with a cigarette and a piece of sane advice.
Shutter Island is something out of a Gothic nightmare, shot in bloodless blues and chilly greys under assaulting precipitation and wind. I’m a sucker for horror films set in asylums, and when Teddy and Chuck are given a tour of the grounds, the ominous appearance on the horizon of the dreaded “Ward C,” housing the worst offenders, sent a chill down my spine. “Shutter Island” is photographed well, never abandoning the mood of futility that it sets. Once on the island, these characters aren’t going anywhere and we know it.
Teddy has flashbacks to an incident that took place at the Dachau concentration camp, where his squadron assassinated German guards who had offered their surrender. He is also haunted by the death of his wife (Michelle Williams), burned alive in their home by an arsonist. These enactments of Teddy’s memories flaunt some beautiful cinematography and emotional effects work. Everything seems tied to the missing patient, Rachel (Emily Mortimer), who was reportedly incarcerated for drowning her children in a lake behind her house. Her horrifying act starts intermingling with Teddy’s flashbacks, and the mystery becomes about how Teddy is really connected to everyone he meets.
We are told by a character that Ashecliffe Hospital was funded by HUAC, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which launched some infamous investigations into Communist activity in the United States during and after the Second World War (Scorsese himself appeared as a film director blacklisted by HUAC in Irwin Winkler’s “Guilty by Suspicion” and has been a visible supporter of Elia Kazan). The idea is that the hospital is up to something pretty nefarious involving soldiers, and Teddy is getting too close. He slinks around the grounds, looking for clues, experiencing delusions that he is told stem from drugs he took unknowingly.
I was struck by Scorsese’s use of motifs to unite emotional responses to traumatic events – in the flashbacks, papers flying about the office of a German commandant mimic pieces of ash blowing about Teddy’s living room. Teddy also seems to have a severe distaste for water, and Scorsese communicates it many times in small increments, bringing the mystery out of it gradually, making it a solution to what’s really going on in the narrative. “Shutter Island” is cast and performed well, with Elias Koteas, Jackie Earle Haley, John Carroll Lynch, Ted Levine, Patricia Clarkson and the incomparable Max Von Sydow all playing memorable roles that cater to their talents. It’s just a pleasure to see these underrated powerhouses on-screen together.
Unfortunately, what’s going on is a little too obvious. It dawned on me fairly early in the movie, during the scene in which Teddy and Chuck are interviewing patients in the hospital mess hall. Pay attention to a glass of water in this scene for a clue. Once it becomes apparent what’s going on, the film unfolds as an exercise in watching how Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis go about making the pieces fit. Admittedly, I was surprised by a few of its developments, but Scorsese ultimately plays “Shutter Island” close to the chest, where he undoubtedly holds a special place for noir.
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