It’s a cliché of movie criticism to say that a given film needs to be seen more than once. Yes, Shutter Island deserves multiple viewings, but not because the final stretch reveals that everything you think you know is wrong. Plenty of films do that without deserving a second take: after the jig is up, there’s nothing worth going back to. In the words of a metaphor I like quoting often, it’s like the boy who cuts his drum open to see what made it go bang. This one, you cut it open and there’s a whole new drum in there.
The top level of Shutter Island, the part that most people will watch on a basic entertainment level, has been adapted more or less directly from Dennis Lehane’s novel. The levels below that, which reveal themselves the second (third, fourth, etc.) time out, grow from things the film apparently treated only as background or additional color: the mindsets of post-WWII America; the U.S. as the moral victor of the war; and most of all the Pollyannaish positivism certainty of the psychology of the period, which was convinced broken minds could be repaired with a mere mechanical effort. Each level is shot through with the main character’s burning need to find the truth of himself and his world — both of them being (oh, irony) the very last things he wants to know.
Enter Level 1. 1954. U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) arrive at Ashecliffe, a mental hospital for the criminally insane twelve miles from land on storm-swept Shutter Island. Their mission is to find an escaped patient, a woman who allegedly drowned her children and somehow vanished from her cell “as if she evaporated straight through the walls”. Those eldritch words are uttered by the chief of the institution, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), and to Teddy’s ears they rightfully sound like a bit of a taunt: Care to figure this one out, Marshal?
The good doctor and his cohorts dutifully note the paradox inherent in how someone of Teddy’s intelligence is also such a hard-noser. He speaks German and understands that much more of psychology than the average Joe, but doesn’t hold back from baiting Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) for his foreign-sounding diction (“You hit the consonants a tad hard”) or letting his anger do the talking when he’s not allowed to see a patient’s file. They sense, quite correctly, that Teddy has a good deal below the waterline. He participated in the liberation of Dachau and not only saw but participated in horrible things; his dead wife visits him in dreams (and later, in visions) and torments him with what could have been and what never will be. The more Teddy tries to shove this stuff out of the way, the harder it comes back.
Then the film begins to ply on the twists. The “missing” patient returns, and was apparently never missing to begin with. Teddy reveals to his partner that he has had an agenda of his own, and wanted to come to this specific place to execute it. A violent storm and a power failure gives them the run of the place, and allows Teddy to come face-to-face with his quarry — but in a way that mires him down only that much more deeply in confusion. And then there come a set of revelations that are like zooming out from a single tree to encompass the whole landscape, and where Teddy is left with the ghastly possibility that the only things he can count on to be real are the sides of him that are too horrible to live with.
This leads us to Level 2, about which I cannot speak without first saying here be dragons, so proceed only if you have already seen the film. There is little doubt that Teddy is a damage case, and his damage is of a specific kind: the can-do all-American boy who discovers the world is larger, uglier, more complex and more corrosive to one’s spirit than he imagined. He feared he had committed flat-out murder in the war; he retreated into drink to numb the pain; his distraught wife exhibited damage of her own which only fed back into his collapse. None of it was supposed to be like this, either: all-American boys like Teddy Daniels don’t commit things like the massacre of SS men at Dachau. But they do, in the same way the country he fought to defend might now be expanding on the human-guinea-pig wetwork of the Nazis, with him possibly being the next animal on their dissecting table.
Dr. Robert Lindner, the man who gave us the catchphrase “rebel without a cause”, probed into many a case like this during his own career. He could well have been a colleague of Drs. Cawley and Naehring: during the Fifties, the “Age of Anxiety”, he railed against the way man was being made into an end result and not treated as an end in himself. He abhorred the way drugs, electroshock and psychosurgery were not being used to cure the mentally ill but simply make them more controllable and pliant, and he might well have approved of the elaborate “theater of the mind” that Teddy’s doctors use on him. He had, after all, attempted something similar himself with a patient afflicted with profound delusions of being a space traveler (“The Jet-Propelled Couch”, in The Fifty-Minute Hour). Irony abounds, though: that patient was one of the scientists who helped build the atomic bomb, whose specter hangs over more than a few people in the film. Teddy’s delusions about himself mirror the larger myths the U.S. told itself during the Fifties: that the real enemies are always external; that the good guys win because they’re the good guys, and not because they do the right thing (which is often painful and difficult); and that any problem, especially a deeply personal one, can be solved with a little stiffening of the spine.
It wasn’t until The Aviator came along that I took Leonardo DiCaprio seriously — my mistake, I admit — and was reminded of how Martin Scorsese was one of the few American directors left who could inject wit and daring into what might otherwise be wholly commercial projects. It didn’t seem that way after The Departed, a movie not only vastly inferior to its Hong Kong original (Infernal Affairs) but so amateurish and slapdash on its own merit that its four Oscars felt like they were intended to be backdated sixteen years for all the things GoodFellas didn’t win. But I had confidence in him, and sure enough Shutter Island turned out to be a return to home turf for both of them.
Scorsese has always thrived best on stories about men consumed by the need to redeem themselves in environments where such things simply don’t happen. He also loves environments that lend themselves to visual melodrama, and there’s plenty of those here: looming brick façades, wrought-iron grills, white-peaked waves pounding rocky cliff faces. But he also understands the best way to really scare the audience is to give them things that remain rattling around in their heads long after they leave the theater, the same way Teddy himself has been questioning his own motives and behavior ever since he let his tiger all the way out of its cage. He uses cinematic tricks that by themselves ought to be shameless — the push-zoom, the smash-cut closeup, the dramatic use of slow motion, and even running film backwards.
And then there’s DiCaprio, who as of late has become superb at giving us men who are all boyish machismo on the outside and crumbling abysses of doubt and terror inside. Think of his Howard Hughes from The Aviator, succumbing to his phobias; his mental heistman Cobb in Inception, eaten alive by guilt (also for his late wife); or Revolutionary Road’s Frank Wheeler, a man who could be Teddy’s restless twin brother, living in the same time period and imbued with the urge to break free of the same society Teddy has killed to protect. DiCaprio has all the same knotted-muscle energy of those characters here, playing a man who seems certain that the right mix of willpower and violence can smash through anything in his way. Then he finds out the biggest obstacle in his path is himself, and he implodes — just like one of those newfangled hydrogen bombs, whispered about by one of the inmates who collars him.
Most everyone who sees a movie and responds strongly to it does so because they have found their own point of entry into its secrets. For me, I think, it is the way the film reflects the twilight of a kind of certainty about the order of things. We like to convince ourselves that our problems can be fixed like changing the sparkplugs in a car engine. Scorsese knows better. So, I think, does Teddy.