The first obvious question about Shutter Island is this – at what end of the Scorcese spectrum does it lie? Is it the vintage Scorcese of Goodfellas & Kundun or the interesting end of Bringing Out The Dead & The Departed? The truth is that it’s the latter if we are honest, but like The Departed it is still manages to grip from start to finish in a way few other directors manage. Even firing on three-quarters of a tank he manages to fit more ideas onto the screen than most other directors in the studio system. Only Michael Mann can match him for consistency.
Shutter Island is a firmly a film made by a film geek for film geeks. From the opening screech of the overture lifted from Hitchcock to the cliff top scramble (more Hitchcock) the film delights in presenting us with Hollywood’s version of an asylum rather than the real thing. Everything is just that little more real than normal, overemphasised. The upshot of this is that it’s tremendous fun with the viewer being encouraged to further the absurdity of the story as much of the characters – the fact that Max Von Sydow plays a German doesn’t matter until we are told he’s playing a German, only then will the viewer choose whether to care about the fact.
This sense of playing with convention extends throughout. Scorcese has long been noted as a fan of Powell & Pressburger and the look of the film reflects this. Was it shot on location (in which case, where) or in a vast studio play pen? It looks real but the background skies always look too intense, like those obvious matte paintings from the 1950’s. This is of course part of the joke, just another part of the puzzle being constructed. Is this a film about a mystery, a horror pastiche or something else? Or possibly all three? No answer is provided, indeed the end remains gloriously ambiguous – did you see what you think you did?
Shutter Island may take a second viewing to decipher all of the clues it gives to its eventual conclusion (which could be just one interpretation of events) but this would also allow you look at the rest of the fantastic whole. DiCaprio’s fourth collaboration once again how far Scorcese has dragged him in the publics mind; he’s turning into that rare thing – like Brad Pitt & George Clooney he’s a major movie star who can also act. The fun here lies with the cameos – is Ben Kingsley in Gandhi or Sexy Beast mode? The answer will depend on your interpretation of the film, but that’s why it’s such fun. Likewise Ted Levine turns up for five minutes and steals the film from under everyone, but by that stage we aren’t even sure what we are seeing.
There are problems. It could do with about fifteen minutes trimmed from the running time and some sections feel like red-herrings when viewed with the whole, but these are minor niggles considering everything else. Shutter Island is about creating a ghost train, one that grabs your hand and never quite explains where it’s going (or how it got there) but that spits you out telling you that you’ve had fun. It’s not a vintage, but it’s far better at this than other recent attempts.