Giving 'Shutter Island' a Second Look

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Paramount Pictures


During its theatrical run a few months ago, Martin Scorsese's loopy, lumbering psycho-thriller Shutter Island made a whole bunch of money. And fun-house head-trip that it is (a kind of Eternal Stormy Night of the Spotless Mind, it inspired its many admirers to talk about the necessity of watching the movie multiple times. With the ludicrously baroque B-movie out on home video this week, now seems as good a time as ever to take another look. Though revisiting Shutter Island didn't dispel the impression that it's essentially one long, bellowing foghorn toot of a movie, it did remind me that there's a lot more to savor here than shrill, orderly-thrashing tantrums and troublesomely ornamental Holocaust flashbacks. Scorsese's film, set in 1954 on a Boston Harbor island converted to an asylum for the criminally insane (the imposing Ward C is a former Civil War fort), also injects a strong dose of mounting Cold War paranoia into an increasingly deranged missing-person procedural.

On a second pass, these historical reference points seemed to be there less to gussy up the film's pulpiness than to universalize the psychic trauma of the federal-marshal protagonist, Edward "Teddy" Daniels (a constantly panic-stricken Leonard DiCaprio). Many of the inmates/patients at Ashecliffe invent and then inhabit elaborate fictions essentially to avoid contemplating man's brutality to man. Most of the traumas that have tipped them over into insanity are personal and domestic, but the larger-scale carnage of war also hovers ominously over the proceedings.

If only the whole thing came to a close before the jury-rigged last-act surprises, which essentially reduce the foregoing action to a two-and-a-quarter-hour rebuttal to the timeless barstool witticism "I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy." But during its best stretches, Shutter Island plays like one of those abandoned-mine-shaft roller coasters, as if Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis (adapting Dennis Lehane's novel) had taken up John Goodman's demonic challenge from the Coen brothers' Barton Fink: "I'll show you the life of the mind!"

Scorsese is not at the top of his game here, but Shutter Island is also much more rewarding than most expected when Paramount Pictures punted the film from its Oscar-season 2009 release date all the way into February. And, for all of its hysterics, I suspect it will require more long-term mulling over than any of the great director's other late-career, big-budget DiCaprio collaborations.

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Many of Shutter Island's defenders have tried to place Teddy Daniels in the tradition of Scorsese's iconic self-deluding/self-destructive sociopaths, most notably Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle and Raging Bull's Jake La Motta, both parts written by Paul Schrader. But since the narrative booby-trapping of Shutter Island requires Teddy's true identity be withheld until the very last minute, he's more an unstable property than a character proper. A better analogue to these classic Scorsese characters might be the protagonist of the new-to-DVD Chilean film Tony Manero, Raúl Peralta (Alfredo Castro)—though he takes the aggression of Bickle and the celebrity fixation of The King of Comedy's Rupert Pupkin even further.

There's some very serious stuff in co-writer/director Pablo Larraín's Tony Manero. The 1970s-set film observes the miseries of life during the dictatorial regime of Augusto Pinochet; its Santiago is a dead zone where imported American pop culture exerts an unnatural influence on a desperate populace. But the realist drama is also so assiduously grim that it's hard not to find some measure of humor in its sheer extremity. The 50-something main character is obsessed with Saturday Night Fever, more specifically with re-creating the fabulous disco persona of its main character (played by John Travolta), and he will stop at absolutely nothing to make that happen.

In one scene, Raúl sits down for yet another afternoon matinee of his favorite movie, only to find that the theater has instead begun screening Grease—a film starring "the same gentleman," the box-office attendant eagerly informs him. But this is intolerable to Raúl; after watching only a few frames of the high school musical, he storms upstairs and bludgeons the projectionist to death. Shutter Island may easily trump Tony Manero in surface pleasures—the camera's smooth tracks and swish pans; the lush, effects-heavy dream sequences—but the latter film's channeling of early Scorsese makes for something simultaneously funnier and more disquieting.

Presented by

Benjamin Mercer has written on film for The Village Voice, The New York Sun, The L Magazine, and Reverse Shot. He is a copy editor at Bookforum. More

He has also copyedited for two New York dailies: The New York Sun and amNewYork.

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