Martin Scorsese has been a legend among film lovers and filmmakers for quite some time now. When he burst on to the scene with his movie Mean Streets he created a bit of a sensation. The old Hollywood was dead and the newcomers were now ready to step up and make a difference. Other young filmmakers would soon follow. It is amazing to think of the number of directors that came about at the same time. George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Stephen Spielberg and more.
Scorsese was known for his realism and for his seeming knowledge of the world of the gangster. However, his gangsters did not have the romantic sepia-toned edges to them that you would find in a Coppola film like The Godfather. Martin Scorsese’s gangsters were brutes who liked to do base things like steal from other people and had no compunction about beating someone to death with a baseball bat or kicking them to death on a barroom floor.
Of course many people know about Scorsese’s violent films. There is no film that underscores his tendency to depict violence as shocking as any modern director than Taxi Driver. It is still a stellar and powerful performance from Robert DeNiro and there is still nothing quite like the shocking blood and violence of the ending of that film.
The thing is that Scorsese has never really been a one-note director. He may have become famous and made much of his money early on by dabbling in gangsters and some of his more famous movies have fallen into that gangster genre he has always tried stretching. Some of those movies were not financial successes at the time, but they have become classics to anyone who studies cinema. Movies like After Hours, for example, is an example of Scorsese showing he can do comedy and the surreal. Then there is the movie that manages to be funny and yet profoundly disturbing: The King of Comedy.
As his career has continued and his successes have mounted so has the recognition from his peers. For the longest time he seemed like a guy who would get constantly nominated for an Academy Award but never win. His move Raging Bull was even declared by a host of critics as the finest movies of the 1980s and he still did not win. Then he made the move The Departed, a remake of a Japanese film, but a return to his gangster roots, and he finally achieved the recognition that had eluded him.
Not every attempt at branching out or being experimental has been a success. I am still trying to recover from the hours I spent trying to stay awake during The Age of Innocence. The reviews I got from peers who also enjoyed Scorsese about Bringing Out the Dead turned me away from that one forever. Yet, his other experiments I have found personally rewarding such as The Last Temptation of Christ.
Like many great directors he has his detractors. There are those who say he has never been able to properly edit, although I think his long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker. There are also those who have not enjoyed some of his later movies. Personally, I have found Gangs of New York and The Aviator tremendous achievements and fantastic films. Many disagree.
2010 brought another Scorsese movie and this one looked like another experiment. Scorsese likes to work with the same actors and when he finds a favorite and one that can work well with him he can make magic. In the beginning of his career his acting avatar was Harvey Keitel. Then it was Robert DeNiro. These days Leonardo DiCaprio is the one he goes to. Together they have made some great films. Now Scorsese uses him again to tell the mind-bending tale of Shutter Island.
Scorsese does such great work in adapting the works of others. People like to think that all of his films are originals, but some of the best have been from others sources. Even his magnum opus Goodfellas was based on the book Wise Guys. So, he now transforms a Dennis Lehane book for Shutter Island.
The movie starts out to be a straight-forward detective thriller set in the 1950s. Then the big twist comes and things turn about. In fact, the movie turns on its head so much that many have compared Shutter Island to the other DiCaprio mind-bender Inception. The two movies are nothing truly alike and, yet, they explore some similar themes.
DiCaprio plays Federal Marshall Edward “Teddy” Daniels. He and his partner, Chuck, are headed to Shutter Island. The island is a former fort that is now an asylum for the criminally insane. On this island are doctors who are exploring radical new therapies to treat people whom society has declared incurable. The most dangerous and insane criminals are here.
Daniels is here because a patient has vanished. A woman named Rachel Solando has vanished from her room. The room was locked and the entire mystery is a true locked room mystery that so many fans of the genre love so much.
Daniels begins his investigation just as a huge storm hits the island. Many things appear normal and, yet, when you look at the scenes and what is happening around Daniels and his partner, some things just seem out of place. The guards seem to watching a little too closely. His partner has trouble getting his gun out of his belt. The nurse gives a strange sideways glance when Daniels inquires about another doctor.
The mystery builds. There are some very outright creepy scenes in this movie and profoundly creepy images. It shows that if Scorsese were to ever do an outright horror movie, he might make one better than anyone else currently in the genre.
DiCaprio is, always, at the top of his form. He is truly one of the finest actors of his generation and he continues to show that his range is nearly limitless. He can do any accent, portray any emotion and creates each of his characters as utterly three-dimensional and realistic beings. He seems to exist in their skins and not to be just portraying a role.
All of the performances are excellent. Ben Kingsley is great. Max von Sydow is excellent. Emily Mortimer is stellar. Michelle Williams is painfully beautiful and creepy. On and on it goes as the story begins to unravel, taking startling and daring turns and turning back on itself like a snake eating its tale.
Where does it stand among Scorsese’s other films? Well, it manages to be a bit of an experiment and yet feels like some of his other films. He is as sure a filmmaker as you are likely to find anywhere on this planet. Whether you like his films or not you have to acknowledge his influence and the affect he has had on films of the modern era.
Shutter Island is not one of his greats. His greats (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas) stand like a kind of Mount Rushmore of film. This one is worth seeing, is very entertaining and arrives at its ending, I think, fairly. However, it is not one that I think will go down in the history of film. Then again expecting a director, even a great one, to do that every time isn’t fair. A director has to be able to make movies that interest him and do movies he enjoys doing.
Any Scorsese film is worth the effort. By now he has done so many movies in so many genres that there is a film out there for just about any fan of any genre of film. Shutter Island is an excellent mystery and an excellent thriller. It may not be something discussed at length in a college film class, but it will sure give you a few chills and keep you guessing right up until the end and even after the credits roll.