Our decade of terror nearly missed out on having a Martin Scorsese movie, as Shutter Island was originally slotted to be released in October 2009 before being pushed back to February 2010. The reason given at the time? The recession was hitting too hard and Paramount needed something to help buoy their slate in the early part of the new year. So they pushed the movie with the bankable star and acclaimed director based on a book from a famous author. This announcement came about a month after Universal similarly moved their Wolfman movie from November 2009 to February 2010. Both these developments were covered on a humble blog in the form of tastefully titled reviews. I bring up these things not because they are interesting, but because I found it horrifying how long ago a decade can feel in our breaking-news-every-15-minutes world.
Shutter Island is a movie that made me uneasy from the get-go. It opens with U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) seasick on a ship making its way through the earliest signs of a massive storm. On top of being a grisly introduction to the character, the film immediately commits to using oddly placed cuts and jarring, repetitive music and never stops… Which is probably why I ended up spending so much time on the edge of my seat. If you can get past the celebrated director, famous cast, and expensive computer-generated effects, this is every bit a schlocky horror film.
Daniels and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) are on their way to the eponymous island, which has become a mental hospital. They’re investigating the disappearance of a patient, Rachel Solando, who was committed after drowning her three children. When the marshals arrive, they are greeted by the deputy warden (John Carroll Lynch), who disarms them and takes them to the lead psychiatrist, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley). Cawley is a bit unorthodox: he doesn’t believe in using psychotropic medication, even though the patients who get sent to Shutter Island are all violent and dangerous. Daniels is skeptical of that approach and immediately frustrated with the doctor and his staff who won’t turn over medical records or allow access to Ward C. The mystery of Solando’s disappearance becomes more confusing as the marshals explore the island, which leads Daniels to begin to suspect there’s a lot more going on in this spooky place.
Without giving it away, Shutter Island is a movie that is defined by its drawn-out ending. A story that seems like it should be chaotic and confusing instead takes the time to state everything in very clear, unambiguous terms. At one point a character literally stands in front of a chalkboard and explains what’s going on. At first this experience was disappointing, but as it continued on I found it became exciting. It’s like a challenge: the characters are desperately trying to convince the audience that this all makes sense. I respected it for being fun and engaging in a way that I didn’t expect. Especially for a Scorsese movie, although this was a weird period for him; his next major feature after this was Hugo.
There is a downside to this, though, which is that you almost forget about the two hours that come before the final scenes. Daniels’ experience on the island is interspersed with dreams, delusions, and flashbacks that reveal much about this tough New Englander. We learn about his tragic home life, his experiences in WWII, and just how he came to be the man he is now. At the same time, the story of the mental hospital and its patients veers in a delightfully pulpy direction, even though the movie ends up just making it about Daniels. I can’t help but think maybe less would have been more in this case: would a shorter movie have been more consistent?
Dicaprio and Scorsese would reunite again this decade with The Wolf of Wall Street, a movie much more suited to the their collaborative history. Perhaps, in some part, they were inspired by their own experiences trying to make something insular when the world needed a more thoughtful product from these men? Perhaps they suffered a recession of their own? Leo continued chewing the scenery in movies for a few more years until he finally got his Oscar, then had to take a break because he was so burnt out. Scorsese focused the end of this decade on a return to crime films and his oldest collaborators. But 10 years ago, things got pretty silly, and we shouldn’t forget about that.