Shutter Island

Shutter Island ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Like so many of Scorsese's ostensibly minor works, Shutter Island is not only excellent but a fascinating variation on the director's recurring themes. Teddy Daniels, like most Scorsese protagonists, is a man compelled to harm himself, to stay on a path of self-destruction that any outside observer can immediately peg as insane. Yet the film differs from Scorsese's portraits of defiant immolation (Goodfellas), self-martyring sacrifice (The Last Temptation of Christ, Bringing Out the Dead) and oblivious harm (The Irishman) by presenting a character who is genuinely held hostage by his own trauma. The twist, much discussed and derided, is merely the pulpy endpoint of a film so keyed in on the defense mechanisms of fantasy and displacement that the entire movie around the protagonist is visibly false. Rear projections abound, editing makes a point to break continuity, and the color timing is so wild that the film is as much a tribute to Jack Cardiff's work for the Archers as Hitchcock's grim horror-thrillers.

Above all, though, this is, among Scorsese's most anguished movies, perhaps the most so until The Irishman. A lot of this comes down to DiCaprio's performance. DiCaprio's early work with Scorsese doesn't land that much for me; he's visibly trying to parlay a breakout as a Serious Actor in Gangs of New York and The Aviator, and he comes across a bit too self-conscious in The Departed attempting to play a toughie. His work in Shutter Island is, in my opinion, the true start of his successful reinvention as the kind of actor he always dreamed of being. Here, he takes the same basic rubric of his squinting, menacing bad cop routine of The Departed and deliberately foregrounds the ways in which that attitude is a thin facade. He makes a point of the effort it takes to project that image, his seeming no-bullshit view of psychiatry and the overriding mystery soon dissolving into relived pain and misery.

And as the wheels come off of Teddy's mirage, DiCaprio becomes more and more heartbreaking, even managing to pull off the only time I can recall someone wringing genuine, non-comical sorrow out of a character rearing back and screaming "NOOOOO!" as the camera pulls back (Schoonmaker using a smash axial cut out rather than some elaborate crane pull out as per the norm adds another punch). The finale is comically dense with exposition, but it's sold out on Teddy's mounting honesty with himself, and the coda, in which he chooses oblivion over living with knowledge of himself, is a grim and tragic inversion of The Matrix's philosophical prompt that he sells with total defeat.