Psychological twist-thriller Shutter Island was pushed back 4 months for its eventual release in 2010 because of Paramount’s busy (read: costly) awards schedule the previous year. One would have thought that this would have given time for director Martin Scorcese to tighten up the film’s screws, as it were, make sure everything was ship-shape in this narrative voyage to a creepy island asylum. Instead the film exhibits a looseness not typically associated with the American auteur, and is one of the signs that perhaps he enjoyed himself rather too much in the making of it.
That is not to say the film fails to entertain. The problem of indulgence seems to germinate from the source material, where author Denis Lehane throws a lot of things at the wall – mental patients, grisly murders, crazy Nazis, crazy doctors, crazy Nazi doctors – not all of which stick. It’s as if Lehane wanted a release from his previous novel Mystic River (later adapted into an Oscar-winning film by Clint Eastwood); the story feels a little wild or untamed, a little garish. And that’s fine if you buy into it. In the film most people probably do, which is littered with famous faces channelling ‘deadly serious’ with the schlocky script.
I mean schlocky in both a good and bad way here. Good in the sense of old 50s monster movies or the inaugural generation of US comic books, where the outlandish becomes the norm and the narrative intrigue is drawn in the broadest of strokes. You can imagine the marketing for this feature being plastered in cantered scarlet lettering, perpetually resolved by exclamation marks: EXPERIENCE THE TERROR! WITNESS THE SHOCKS! INVESTIGATE THE INSANITY! Scorcese fully embodies Lehane’s intentions here. The latter describes the book as a mix of ‘the Bronte sisters and Mary Shelley’ (this is accurate to a point, though it is a crude mix of these writers’ crudest elements), and there are some genuinely troubling images – my first viewing of the film was incomplete as my 15-year-old self couldn’t bear the tension in the prison sequence; the frames were obscured by my latticed fingers and were only filled in last night. At times it feels like Scorcese is making a film from another era: the colour palette is reminiscent of 50s Technicolour, the music is overbearing and garish in its heavy shearing strings (a la Hitchcock), and the characters are talking stereotypes (how many times must DiCaprio assert he is a ‘federal mah-shal’?). And all this is good!
…to a point. The looseness I referred to before degrades the finished product of Shutter Island. It comes somewhere between the editing and the narrative’s shifts in tone. A certain amount of sloppiness is incurred by the narrative territory; we are in a disturbed man’s mind and therefore not everything should be functional. Indeed Scorcese has fun with this in some obvious continuity errors, e.g. a woman drinking from a glass in her hand which isn’t there, but this intentional disruption has a limit, and Shutter Island crosses it. The disjointed editing at times is very surprising, as Scorcese once again teams with his lifetime editor confidante Thelma Schoonmaker, whose economical cinematic scissors oversaw such tightly-wound classics as Raging Bull and GoodFellas. All this combines to an overwhelming conclusion – that Shutter Island is Scorcese cutting loose, letting off steam. There aren’t many directors who I would pay to watch indulge themselves, but Scorcese is one of them (you can guess I walked out happy from Wolf of Wall Street aswell).
NB. The Hitchcockian comparison runs deep – Scorcese screened Vertigo for the cast to set the mood for the picture; the film’s climax even features a chase up a vertiginous spiral staircase.