In the cavernous psychological minefield of Film Noir, one man’s heightened dream is another man’s crushing nightmare. This battle depends on conflicting perceptions of heightened imagery, where diverging states of consciousness shadow-box across the frame until chance or fate permanently mutes the players involved. And throughout the highly stylized cinema of Martin Scrosese, dreamer and demon are often indistinguishable from each other. But Shutter Island, a staggering green flash of style, iconography, and paranoia, might be Scorsese’s most confined exercise in mental entrapment, complicating roles of hero, villain, and ultimately victim. Set in 1954 on a jagged weather torn isle in the Boston Harbor, Shutter Island completely immerses the viewer in the haunting complexities and gaps of Noir aesthetics, yet like all great films of its ilk, strangely connects them to the moral and social ramifications of the War Film. Scorsese’s duality doesn’t just boil down to psychology of character, but genre as well.
Unfolding immediately in mid-moment, Shutter Island disintegrates cinematic formalities with a close-up of U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) splashing water on his face. “Get it together Teddy”, Daniels trembles, visibly shaken by the nautical mode of transportation eroding his comfort zone with every passing second. As Daniels makes his way topside from the cramped underbelly of the ship, the imposing vessel plows through fields of fog like a hot knife through butter, Scorsese dwarfing his lead character in an endless sea of menace. This begins a tonal chess match, one defined by jarring environments and assumptions surrounding Teddy and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). As if to punctuate the sense of uncertainty, Scorsese holds on the pair from afar as they slowly drift toward the titular mental hospital to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a dangerous female inmate.
Narratively, Shutter Island litters scenes with unsubtle symbols and metaphors. Teddy and Chuck storm island just ahead of a massive hurricane, pitting mood against location with all of Scorsese’s patented visual bravado. And the shifty locale springs both natural and human warning signs from all angles, as prisoners convincingly intimidate, orderlies and nurses restlessly rustle, and head physician Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) slyly subverts the investigation at every turn. But Scorsese’s direction favors potent individual moments over general revelations, and the investigation takes a backseat to Teddy’s increasingly vivid, hallucinatory flashbacks regarding his time as a soldier liberating Dachau and most strenuously, images of his dead wife (Michelle Williams) and daughter. Dark shadows creep, rocky cliffs surround, and flashes of bright color shove the narrative into surreal tangents, organically transmitting a current of doubt and deception into Teddy’s crumbling professional facade. Thankfully, Shutter Island inevitably turns inward, moving away from the machinations of the procedural and into the subjective flowering/wilting of memory, guilt, and ultimately redemption.
Despite some gloriously inane twists and an avalanche of exposition, Shutter Island succeeds masterfully in exploring the connection between broken mind and traumatic experience. Noir films, always burning with Expressionist imagery and tragedy, originate from traumatic gallows invariably tied to the terrible experiences of military combat. Scorsese’s moody mind-fuck is no different, except Shutter Island completely devotes itself to the desperate patient, to the conflicted lost cause, to the tainted delusional bouncing off the walls in an effort to break through the pain. In this sense, it’s a rare exercise in extreme genre that turns incredibly personal, devastatingly so. Scorsese has long since mastered the art of exterior rampage with characters like Jake LaMatta or Travis Bickle bulldozing tradition and convention in favor of reactionary formal outbursts. But even during it’s most cinematically virtuoso moments, Shutter Island remains connected to the interior fighter, the many tormented souls hellbent on convincing the world their nightmare is merely a dream in disguise.