Scorsese’s noir Island

February 25, 2010

I thought Martin Scorsese lost his edge in old age. His last film, The Departed, was great the first time around, but lost its luster after multiple viewings. (I blame Jack Nicholson’s terrible Baahsten accent and that incredibly weird cocaine and prostitute scene.) Where was the suspense? At age 67, could it be that Scorsese lost his flair for well-crafted, shocking films?

I have a lot to learn—Scorsese hasn’t lost his fastball. Shutter Island, based on the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name, is as frightening as Cape Fear and as disturbing as Taxi Driver. The film creeps along like a silent predator, waiting to strike once the audience is distracted by Technicolor or haunting musical notes. Shutter Island has all of the elements of classic film noir—namely, a flawed hero and a menacing villain—but it stands out from its predecessors in the way it brutally assaults the audience’s senses when they least expect it. You will jump out of your seat watching Shutter Island—Scorsese made damn sure of it.

Shutter Island opens on a small ferry, rocking to-and-fro in a violent storm, chugging toward an island basked in eerie glow. U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is doubled-over inside the boat, heaving the insides of his stomach into a toilet. His partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) is standing on bow-side, smoking a cigarette and glancing out towards the horizon. The scene is unlike anything Scorsese has done in decades—it’s dripping with noir influences that would make any B-movie fan swoon.

On the island, nothing is as it appears. A Civil War-era fort is actually a prison for the criminally insane. The prison’s medical director, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), claims that the inhabitants of the prison are patients, not prisoners. And Teddy—brought in to investigate the disappearance of a child murderer—steps onto the craggy rock of an island with a past of his own that haunts him when he sleeps.

Teddy’s dream sequences are a highlight of Shutter Island, if only because they are so starkly removed from the tone of the rest of the film. The saturated colors that flood his dreams stand out from the subdued grey hues on Shutter Island. When his night terrors veer towards memories of liberating Dachau in World War II, the soundtrack quiets down to a peep; the scene is unspeakably powerful because of the silence.

But don’t expect Shutter Island to be a rigorous watch. Film noir isn’t meant to stimulate the mind. Scorsese’s love letter to films like Out of the Past and Vertigo stays true to the genre,  at the expense of plausible storylines and surprising plot twists. But really, who cares? Shutter Island’s final scene—which is too good to spoil—vindicates Scorsese’s decision to make the film.

I can’t believe I had the gall to doubt him.

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