SHUTTER ISLAND's Bizarre Sense of Unease and the Critical Reaction


The critical discourse on Martin Scorsese's SHUTTER ISLAND has been fairly silent, with a lot of time spent arguing on whether or not the positive attention lavished upon it would be if it weren't a Scorsese picture.  Or, better yet, if the "twist" ending makes the film good or bad.  What a ridiculous way to discuss a film that has such an intimate knowledge of cinema history and classical technique.  And that isn't a "twist" guys, it's a logical outgrowth of the film you just watched, and you should really stop trying to out-guess the movie and think you're smarter than it.  It's not a competition, it's a movie - a brilliant one.

The film is a masterpiece of mood, perception and intensity, with one image leading into the next, and setting up all the information one would need to make connections, but with a very subtle slight of hand.  From the very first shots of the film, with the rear-projection stylization setting up the artifice of the situation, to Mark Ruffalo's fumbling with getting the gun holster off his belt - because he never used one before, get it? - and on through the very obvious set-ups with side characters and their encounters with Teddy, the audience is being hinted at and shown that the only possible outcome is the one that happens.

This first dream hints at virtually everything to come, from the blood to the water, to the ashes falling around them - it's all in Teddy's head.

I am utterly convinced at this point that there are shots in this film that serve to shake the audience, to make them experience an uneasiness, adding to the film's almost unbearable suspense in places.  While some of these could be dismissed as continuity errors, it happens so often and in such strange ways that it just seems implausible there would be so many of them.  Maybe it's just easier for an audience to dismiss something as a mistake rather than something purposefully manipulating them much like the Surrealist and Expressionist movements did.  Maybe Scorsese is asking too much of his audience to know something about these films.  For my money, there's a whole lot of Carl Theodor Dreyer's VAMPYR in SHUTTER ISLAND.

The main problem seems to be that people feel like the movie owes them something, when really its payoff is perfectly adequate and even appropriate.  The film isn't building up to some great revelation or cathartic release, but toward Teddy's understanding of the situation he has found himself in.  And it's all supported very early on in the film, and consistently evoked throughout by images that confound, contradict and disprove everything we think we might know.  For anyone who hasn't seen SHUTTER ISLAND yet, this is the point you may want to stop reading, because I'm going to get really in-depth about the whole ordeal.

Teddy Daniels is Andrew Laeddis.  That's the big twist.  I don't know why people are pissed about this, since it's pretty obvious the whole entire time he's on the island that everything's a big giant lie meant to send him over the edge into a realization about something that happened to him in his past and where he is at this point - a common theme found in all of Scorsese's films.  Ostensibly, Teddy is on the island to investigate the disappearance of one of the patients, accompanied by a new partner, Chuck.  Soon, things begin to unravel a bit, and doubts are cast on everyone on the island, even his partner.

Teddy and Chuck "arrive" at Shutter Island.  Note the very obvious screen-projection, hearkening back to classical Hollywood, but also hinting at the artificiality of Teddy's situation.

 Apart from all of the hints in his perceived reality, there's the dream sequences, which beckon us to think about the images we are seeing, and which very often contradict everything we've been told about his history, as well as the very thing we've just seen happen, and which also set up the bizarre things that begin to happen when Teddy is fully awake.

Take the interrogation scene in the cafeteria, which is not a dream, where a female patient scribbles the words "RUN" on his notepad.  The patient asks if she could have a glass of water and is given one.  Immediately thereafter, she drinks the water, but the first shot of it is odd, showing her pantomime drinking the water, and then the next showing her picking the glass up and drinking the water.  The pantomimed shot is barely noticeable, except that you do notice it after it's happened, and you're not quite sure you've just seen it.  That's the connection I made with VAMPYR, and it happens very often in SHUTTER ISLAND: a simple sequence or even a single shot that doesn't quite make logical sense, used to evoke dread and uneasiness.

In VAMPYR (1932), the protagonist drifts in and out of dreams, his nightmares reflecting reality and serving to cause dread in the audience.

 The shot I found most fascinating in this regard, and also the most telling given the circumstances of Teddy's identity and the actual chain of events that led him to be a patient on the island, and likewise for going crazy and creating a delusion to protect himself from the horrible reality of what happened, happens during one of his dreams.  In his final delusion, before we get the whole memory in its actual form, Teddy imagines the escaped woman he's been searching for covered in blood, with her children at her feet.  She asks him to help her take them to the lake to go swimming, which he does.  The shot of him carrying the children to the lake is almost innocuous, seemingly inconsequential stuff, until you realize it's in reverse.  Teddy is walking backward from the lake, in effect removing them from the water instead of setting them in it, which is the next shot - with him in the water with the children.  The shot is effective two-fold, and this is really where I started to think about VAMPYR.

Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1932 film is a movie that explicitly blurs the lines between dreams and reality, and which continually uses non-continuity shots to evoke a sense of fear and uneasiness.  During one of the many dreams in the film, there is a shot of a shadow pitching hay, and though shown a few times, it's not entirely clear what's going on.  For one, the shot looks odd, and it isn't until repeats of the shot that it's noticeably backward, with the hay coming from off-screen, landing on the pitchfork, and then being placed on the ground.  It is, in effect, the same idea behind the shot of Teddy Daniels in SHUTTER ISLAND moving backward away from the lake with the children.  You don't know what's odd about it, but it's there, and you know it wasn't quite right.  There are many more parallels one could make between the two films, but for the sake of this article, we'll stick right here.

A fever dream becomes more and more intangible and surreal as the sequence grows and leads to Teddy taking the kids out for a swim.

Aside from that surrealist usage of these "phantom" shots that seemingly are there just to provoke, this shot also mirrors the reality of the situation Teddy is dreaming about, when he in fact removes his three children from the lake after their mother has drowned them.  His memory and dream of this event must show the action like that because it's how it actually played out, which also explains the other "inaccuracies" in his dreams versus what he says happened to his wife - her bleeding from the stomach, being soaking wet, etc.  The films shows us all of this before its revealed, and then it all makes perfect sense.  Without a skillful hand guiding the way - and I feel like this is editor Thelma Schoonmaker's show as much as Scorsese's - this could have been a very plodding, generically designed movie that didn't embrace the bizarre qualities of earlier Hollywood drama and International cinema.

So, given its logical setup and delivery, why then the outcry by the audience against SHUTTER ISLAND?  And where are the critics to defend it when people had similar problems with structure and subversion of expectations in Tarantino's INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS?  Right now, hey're too obsessed with whether or not the artifice is justified, or whether or not Scorsese can be forgiven for the "twist", instead of discussing how the film arrives at its conclusion or the many ways in which it really evokes a classical Hollywood that many people completely overlook in today's criticism.  In the depths of my bones, I know Scorsese has created a late-period masterpiece that will become better appreciated over time, and once everyone gets over its stupid marketing as a twist movie and how shocked they should or shouldn't be, I hope the discourse becomes much greater over this movie.  I'll be contributing again soon.

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