Watching Martin Scorsese’s surprisingly engaging Shutter Island recently proved more impressive than I could have possibly imagined. The director’s first “horror” film since Cape Fear, which features the same unspeakably pervasive air of dread throughout, Shutter Island stands out on Leonardo DiCaprio’s particularly notable performance, a genuinely excellent cast of notable actors, the often stunning (yet mostly computer-generated) visuals, the homage to so many great films of the past and, most significantly, the provocative music – a collection of some of the most interesting modern classical pieces imaginable.
In 1954, Federal marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCarprio) and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are dispatched to Shutter Island, a fortress for the criminally insane, to investigate the disappearance of Rachel, a patient incarcerated there for killing her three children. Teddy struggles with the Nazi atrocities he witnessed during the war and vivid memories of his dead wife. The island’s remote and rough terrain – particularly during a sudden hurricane – adds to the officer’s sense of vexing isolation and vertiginous dislocation. Teddy is dumbfounded that Rachel could simply vanish from the island and he cannot be sure whether the island’s patrons, Dr. John Crawley (Ben Kingsley) and Dr. Jeremiah Naehring (Max von Sydow), are helping him or misleading him for reasons of their own. As Teddy learns more about Rachel and Shutter Island, he slowly realizes he is on a quest to understand himself.
This is the sort of film one doesn’t picture Martin Scorsese making, much less even wanting to make. The overtly commercial premise isn’t unlike Sydney Pollack or Francis Ford Coppola directing films of John Grisham novels. Mass market books usually spell the end of a great filmmaker’s journey. But nothing about Shutter Island feels like pandering to the teenaged masses or hack-for-hire work. It is a testament to the artistry of Martin Scorsese. Certainly, it’s no Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, yet neither is it something that could be called Scorsese-esque. Simply imagine what Terry Gilliam would have done with the story.
And yet, very few filmmakers could have achieved what Martin Scorsese makes of all this pulp, taking what is essentially a movie of effects (which far too many American films are nowadays) and providing a deeper sensitivity to well-worn psychological tropes and a positively profound questioning of reality.
The director achieves all of this not through scripting dialogue or telegraphing emotions, but rather by communicating the well-understood visual language of great films of the past such as the film noir classic Out of the Past (1947), The Stranger (1946), several Fritz Lang noirs (Woman in the Window, Secret Beyond the Door, etc.), Battleship Potemkin (1925), The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari (1920), Gaslight (1944), The Spiral Staircase (1945), The Haunting (1963), Angel Heart (1987) and a lot of Hitchcock.
Most notably, the overt – and obvious – use of green screens recalls Hitchcock as he visualized the stilted world of Tippi Hedren’s titular character with stilted painted backdrops and noticeable rear-screen projection in the hugely underrated and unappreciated Marnie (1964). The unreal skies overwhelmed by menacing storm clouds, the storybook quality of oddly shaped rooms, the imagined gestures of people that may or may not be there and the shafts of light that cannot relieve the darkness all add to a disquieting sense of disequilibrium that will challenge the most emotionally sensitive viewer. Indeed, Martin Scorsese is a master of emotional cinema and Shutter Island is a masterpiece of visceral emotion.
Like a Brian DePalma film, Shutter Island abounds in Hitchcock references, from Foreign Correspondent (the fear of Nazis pervading regular society) and Vertigo (Teddy’s blackouts, his horrific dreams and, of course, the dizzying cliffs) to Psycho (the malevolent niceness of authority figures) and The Birds (the boat’s approach to the island and the difficulty of escaping unknown and unpredictable forces). Unlike a Brian DePalma film, though, Scorsese doesn’t copy or restage scenes as Hitchcock might. Scorsese presents the feel of it all by suggesting moods that recall certain moments in the older films.
It’s the sort of visual poetry with which Scorsese is masterful, painting a convincing portrait of Teddy Daniels’s terribly haunted world without ever suggesting what any of it means (or whether it has to have meaning to anyone other than Teddy). DiCaprio, who gives one of his most mature and insightful performances yet, is a blank slate who fights off unspeakable anguish and unknowable remorse with frightening dreams and disturbing illusions but never betrays his own sense of the truth. He turns in a real performance here.
The film teaches us that words are mostly unreliable, so by the end it’s hard to know what really happened or whether anything really happened at all. What’s so remarkable is how Scorsese and DiCaprio get you to think about how one man struggles to make sense of the world and whatever that means during the post-war time period of the late 50s when manhood, fatherhood, husbandry and heroism were perceived a lot differently than they are now so that the inevitable “twist” isn’t what matters about the film.
Shutter Island is spooky not necessarily as it unspools, but as its ramifications unspool within you after the movie’s over. The script portends to present a pretty open and shut case by the end (the film’s “twist” is hardly unexpected). But – and that’s a big but – the narrator has not been reliable, so what is revealed near the end is hardly dependable. The “facts” elude the viewer as much as they do Teddy. But once you visit Shutter Island, it’s pretty hard to shake off.
Like the outstanding soundtracks to The Exorcist (1973, a film which also featured Max von Sydow) and The Shining (1980), the Shutter Island soundtrack is a compilation of mostly modern classical pieces that are more supremely evocative than music that might have been “composed” specifically for the film. It goes to show how much film music has probably influenced so many 20th Century composers.
“This was the first time Marty [Scorsese] called me,” said Robbie Robertson, producer of the Shutter Island soundtrack, in a February 12, 2010, Facebook posting, “and said, ‘I don't have any ideas where to start musically.’ After I read the script I suggested that instead of a traditional score, I put together some music by modern classical composers with a few songs from the film's time period sprinkled in. Marty felt it really connected and we went on a mission of doing something unlike anything we'd ever done before.”
Robertson, who, as part of The Band, was a featured performer in Scorsese’s 1978 film The Last Waltz, has supervised many of the director’s soundtracks since then and hand-selected this particular collection himself. He says with pride that "This may be the most outrageous and beautiful soundtrack I've ever heard."
The film’s most memorable music is certainly Ingram Marshall’s impressionistic “Fog Tropes” (which, as the title suggests, would have been ideal for John Carpenter’s The Fog) and Krzysztof Penderecki’s stunning “Symphony #3: Passacaglia - Allegro Moderato,” something that appropriately recalls Bernard Herrmann’s intensely emotional Hitchcock obligatos. Pendrecki’s music is so marvelously cinematic that it’s truly surprising that the composer hasn’t done much work for film - although the composer’s exceptional “Polymorphia” was used for both The Exorcist and the 1994 Jeff Bridges film Fearless. Gyorgy Ligeti’s elegant “Lontano” will sound familiar to listeners of The Shining soundtrack and it sounds just right here too.
Other highlights include Morton Feldman’s appropriately haunting “Rothko Chapel 2,” Lou Harrison’s Suite For Symphonic Strings: Nocturne, Brian Eno’s “Lizard Point” (written by Eno with Axel Gros, Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn), John Cage’s “Root of an Unfocus” and Ingram Marshall’s “Prelude – The Bay,” which again provides a thick and appropriate fog of musical mayhem.
Several pieces are jarring enough in this presentation to point out and include Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight,” which seems like a twisted version of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” the not altogether out of place and out of time Mahler quartet (which is actually discussed a bit in the film) and the brilliant, yet trying “Christian Zeal and Activity” – which makes a certain retrospective sense to the film – suggesting that hindsight might not be 20/20.
The period music (“Cry,” “Wheel of Fortune” and “Tomorrow Night”) works well within the film. But the three pieces sound horridly out of place on the two-disc Rhino soundtrack, breaking the eerie mood of suspense, tension and ambient disquiet the otherwise remarkable program establishes:
1. Ingram Marshall: Fog Tropes (Orchestra of St. Lukes, conducted by John Adams)
2. Krzysztof Penderecki: Symphony #3: Passacaglia - Allegro Moderato (National Polish Radio Symphony, conducted by Antonio Wit)
3. John Cage: Music For Marcel Duchamp (Philipp Vandre, prepared piano)
4. Nam June Paik: Hommage a John Cage (Nam June Paik)
5. György Ligeti: Lontano (Wiener Philharmoniker, conducted by Claudio Abbado)
6. Morton Feldman: Rothko Chapel 2 (UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus)
7. Cry - Johnny Ray
8. Max Richter: On The Nature Of Daylight (Max Richter)
9. Giacinto Scelsi: Uaxuctum: The Legend Of The Mayan City Which They Themselves Destroyed For Religious Reasons - 3rd M (Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra; Peter Rundel, conductor)
10. Gustav Mahler: Quartet For Strings And Piano In A Minor (Prazak Quartet)
1. John Adams: Christian Zeal and Activity (Edo de Waart & San Francisco Symphony)
2. Lou Harrison: Suite For Symphonic Strings: Nocturne (The New Professionals Orchestra, conducted by Rebecca Miller)
3. Lizard Point - Brian Eno
4. Alfred Schnittke: Four Hymns, II For Cello And Double Bass (Torleif Thedeen & Entcho Radoukanov)
5. John Cage: Root Of An Unfocus (Boris Berman)
6. Ingram Marshall: Prelude - The Bay (Ingram Marshall)
7. Wheel of Fortune – Kay Starr
8. Tomorrow Night - Lonnie Johnson
9. This Bitter Earth – Dinah Washington mixed by Robbie Robertson with On The Nature Of Daylight - Max Richter
Still, it’s a quibble. The music works exceptionally well for the film – which is the point – and the soundtrack represents the film most marvelously. The CD booklet is chock full of beautifully iconic shots from the film and a few well-chosen quotes are provided (“You can never take away all a man’s memory, never,” “You came here for the truth. Here it is” and “God help you”), giving one the great sense that, as the film poster warns, “someone is missing.”
Very highly recommended.