Shutter Island

This is not a review. It’s not really a defense or even exhortation to see the film. This is what it is, and Scorsese’s Shutter Island has stayed with me in the year since I saw it. It’s perfect. Not that there could never be a “better” film or that in some other time and place I may not prefer another, but it’s an insanely ambitious work of art that is the perfect realization of what it set out to be.

If you haven’t seen the movie, I guess you should stop reading. But before you do, be sure to check out the music that plays over the closing credits (with headphones or a good set of speakers). It is the synthesis of “This Bitter Earth,” a 1960 Clyde Otis song performed by Dinah Washington, and a 2004 composition, “On the Nature of Daylight,” by Max Richter. There’s surprisingly little I could find on how this mash-up came to be, other than that it was arranged by Robbie Robertson, singer, songwriter, guitarist, and longtime Scorsese collaborator. The result is the closest thing to an original composition on the soundtrack. Robertson and Scorsese have filled the movie from end to end with an excellent selection of modern classical music, juxtaposed with some 1940s and 1950s popular songs. This final song brings those two strains together in a way that’s nearly impossible to believe from listening to the two sources separately.

I have only seen Shutter Island once. While I’m planning to watch it again in the next few months — some friends and I are watching all of Scorsese’s films in order, fun stuff — what I have in mind now, is just the impression left a year ago. I’m assuming that you’ve seen the movie too. Here goes.

The film is a technical tour de force. The cinematography, lighting, sound, editing — everything works precisely as Scorsese must have intended. The whole production is just brimming with confidence. Every piece of it contributes expertly to its goal. From the bold music on the boat, the fog, the darkness, all delivering an intense sense of mystery and mood, you know that you’re being spoken to by a master craftsman of the medium.

While every review I’ve read at least acknowledges this much, many critics turn negative after doing so. The main complaint seems to be that the film contains too much pointless misdirection for a payoff of limited value. Here’s A.O. Scott writing in the New York Times:

Mr. Scorsese in effect forces you to study the threads on the rug he is preparing, with lugubrious deliberateness, to pull out from under you. As the final revelations approach, the stakes diminish precipitously, and the sense that the whole movie has been a strained and pointless contrivance starts to take hold.

And Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune:

Scorsese’s job here isn’t direction: It’s redirection and misdirection. That’s all there is to this thing: mazelike fun and games, without the fun.

Of course, they’re correct that we’re forced to confront mystery after mystery. But is it pointless? And what of all the bombast, the loud notes, the general lack of restraint. Is it simply gratuitous, the spectacle of a virtuoso showing off through the means of an overly caricatured noire?

No. These mazes we run through, these misdirections, the extreme mood and emotion, all these are the complexities and passion found inside Teddy’s head. The movie, from beginning to end, is not only about a character coming to grips with his own mind, relearning a horrible truth about himself and his life, but I think it actually depicts Teddy’s mind. The images on the screen draw up a narrative MRI of a broken brain. The fog in the beginning, the delusion of searching for one thing in order to ignore another, the real and imagined inmates and inhabitants who urge him on, and the lighthouse as the goal with all the emptiness that follows a search for a missing but intensely miswanted thing. The movie quite obviously is dream-like, even when it’s not showing us Teddy’s dreams. And what else is a dream but the desperate attempt of a part of the brain to make sense of the stream of information flowing into it. A dream is the perception and ordering of the unreal as the subconscious sorts itself out.

None of this is immediately apparent. The movie works as a wonderfully inventive and skillfully shot detective story for most of its running length. To criticize it for having a twist that was overly telegraphed is perhaps a criticism of its effectiveness as such a story, but it is also to miss the point entirely.

You are supposed to suspect, though perhaps not be entirely sure of, what will unfold at the end. If you’re at all like me, you saw it coming but positively rebelled against it. I desperately wanted the ending not to be true. Even though I guessed the movie would end as it did, I still cast about for an explanation that would make the hospital staff all liars. Oddly, I wanted an explanation that would reduce the movies to an excellent thriller. I looked on the internet for theories like the ones I had in my head, but the more I thought about it (and read), the more I became resigned to accepting that it had indeed all been a ruse. (The skill in making the movie work so truthfully whether you know the ending or not is breathtaking. What to make of the odd disinterest of the staff, the fire, the water, the Platonic cave in which Teddy sees and hears only the shadows of reality made by his own mind - and so much more? It’s just marvelous. The wartime memories that mean one thing and then another. I’m restraining myself not to go on about it.)

In the end, the movie did something absolutely amazing: it made me feel, deeply, deeply feel, just like Teddy himself as he reacted to the moment of realization. I’ve seen films that have expertly transported me to other times and places, to other cultures, in the middle of romances, films that have injected me with adrenaline, and films that have otherwise moved me deeply. But I have never seen a film that has so deftly put me inside the agonized mind of another human being, and all the while doing so without explicitly asking me to empathize with the real Teddy. Yes, it moves you and interests you in all the usual ways that an expertly crafted story can, but its very design causes your mind to synchronize with Teddy’s without consciously realizing it’s happened until the very last minute.

From where I sit, Shutter Island is not only Scorsese’s finest achievement, it’s our greatest film.