How ‘Shutter Island’ Shows the Haunting Surrealism of Martin Scorsese

     February 11, 2020


Shutter Island turns ten years old this week, and watching the new 4K Blu-ray, I couldn’t help but feel like director Martin Scorsese was showing off. For Scorsese, I’m sure his adaptation of Dennis Lehane‘s novel is more of a love letter to the classic horror of folks like Val Lewton and Alfred Hitchcock, but watching the film today looks like Scorsese strolling into the horror space, casually owning it, and then moving on. Whereas other directors struggle and grasp to find a way to do psychological horror, Scorsese basically does it as a one-off, masters it, and then goes back to movies about crime (The Wolf of Wall Street, The Irishman), religion (Silence), or childhood adventure (Hugo).

For those who may not remember the film or haven’t seen it, the plot of Shutter Island revolves around two U.S. Marshalls, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) who head to an asylum for the criminally insane to investigate the disappearance of a patient. However, once there, Teddy begins to question his own sanity as he’s haunted by the loss of his wife Dolores (Michelle Williams), who died in a fire while Teddy was away. The twists and turns in his investigation threaten the fabric of Teddy’s reality and identity.


Image via Paramount Pictures

What makes Shutter Island such a fascinating piece in Scorsese’s filmography is that while Scorsese has never shied away from delusional characters (Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, Rupert Pupkin from The King of Comedy), he has never moved so aggressively in tearing away at their reality. For Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), he apparently lives in a gritty, ugly New York City, and it’s not until the final moments of the movie where we’re left to question if Travis’ “heroism” was all just the delusion of his twisted mind. Rupert (De Niro) floats away in dreams of fantasy, but even though Scorsese never holds our hand to highlight these delusions, we can see the stark contrast between Rupert’s ambitions and his reality.

Teddy Daniels is far more unhinged. Right in the first act, we get a dream sequence where he sees Dolores melting away into ashes, their apartment surrounded in fire, and yet water is also leaking in. The way Teddy sees the world is mad, and he in turn is surrounded by madness to where he can’t trust his own reality. This allows Scorsese a lot of leeway in playing with the bounds of what’s real, presenting information to the audience one way only to have it completely change on a repeat viewing once you learn the truth.

The way Scorsese and longtime editor Themla Schoonmaker play with reality is exquisite, constantly dropping in awkward flashes that show how Teddy is rarely “present” in any situation. He’s an investigator who needs to be investigating himself, but he’s concocted a story based on a false narrative. Reality, as we see it, can’t hold together because Teddy can’t hold together. Travis Bickle is psychotic, but his psychosis gives him a fairly steady framework on how to view the world. Teddy doesn’t have that, and so Scorsese keeps upending our expectations in subtle ways whether it’s through the editing or Robert Richardson‘s stark and stunning cinematography (a side note: the 4K is a must-own for how gorgeous this movie looks, especially as it’s Scorsese’s last movie shot on film rather than digital).

While there are some digital VFX and haunting VFX makeup scattered throughout, Scorsese provides a clinic on how to do psychological horror because he never loses sight about the destructive power of grief and trauma. What’s meant to unnerve us about Teddy isn’t his specific set of circumstances, but that 20th century masculinity can’t even acknowledge its own psychological unraveling. On the surface, Teddy Daniels is a World War II veteran who helped liberate a concentration camp and now works in law enforcement. That’s the story we like to tell ourselves. The mastery of Shutter Island is showing how frail that story really is.

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