Scorsese meets own challenge with ‘Island’

Forrest Phillips

Make no mistake about it. There’s some serious ambition to be found lurking behind the genre thrills of director Martin Scorsese’s latest film, “Shutter Island.”

This is how a thriller should be made. “Shutter Island” builds its tension with implication rather than action, crafting a pervasive sense of anxiety that gains in prominence as the movie’s presented reality slowly decays.

But there’s also a sense of joy to be found in the movie, as it is essentially a celebration of filmmaking — specifically American filmmaking. Scorsese is as much a film historian as he is a filmmaker, and he seems more than happy to put his knowledge to use in “Shutter Island.” The movie conjures up the ghosts of Hollywood past, alluding to both the canonical (Hitchcock) and the marginalized (Val Lewton, anyone?).

It’s exhilarating to watch Scorsese cite influences so effortlessly. Obvious Hitchcockian overtones aside, the psychological effect of “Shutter Island” seems pulled from the low-budget, atmospheric horror-flicks churned out by RKO Studios in the 1940s & ’50s.

Scorsese also pumps “Shutter Island” with film noir style. The heroes slog around in long trench coats and wide fedoras, carrying with them questionable motives and uncertain pasts.

Occasionally, Scorsese evokes the visual flourish of ’50s Technicolor wizards like Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk. Splashing color with expressionistic intention, Scorsese counters the film’s dark themes with strikingly vibrant hues (the tropical-themed necktie worn by Leonardo DiCaprio’s character stands as the best example of this technique, as it’s an eye-catching contradiction to the film’s overriding sense of hopelessness).

However, these references do more than provide an outlet for cinematic reverence. There’s also a more substantial parallel being established between “Shutter Island” and the classic genre-films it invokes. Scorsese is reframing his movie with each allusion, alerting his audience that he intends to challenge himself as a filmmaker.

After 40 years behind the camera, Scorsese has become a directing authority for a generation, and it’s easy to forget that he holds his own set of filmmaking idols. With “Shutter Island,” Scorsese tries to place himself within the working conditions of the Studio Era directors he most admires: classical Hollywood craftsmen like John Ford, Nicholas Ray and Alfred Hitchcock, professionals who managed to imbed intensely personal ideas, techniques and emotions into otherwise simplistic, studio-mandated material.

“Shutter Island” offers a similar test for Scorsese, as he attempts to put an individualized stamp on a film underwritten by genre conventions. He’s done this sort of work before — see “New York, New York” (a musical), “Casino” (an archetypical gangster-picture), or “Cape Fear” (a literal genre-film remake) — but “Shutter Island” is the most ambitious of these undertakings.

So, does he succeed?

Frankly, it’s hard to say. Scorsese’s technical skills are certainly accounted for. We get the aggressive camera, the visceral editing and the labored compositions.

All of Scorsese’s trademark motifs are also there — guilt, insecurity, paranoia and alienation — but they feel too overwrought and direct, ultimately seeming more like a byproduct of the film’s plot and less like an underlying directorial signature. As a result, “Shutter Island” feels more satisfying as a mere thriller than as an auteur exercise.

But I could be wrong. After all, who noticed Hitchcock’s subversive edge or Ford’s weathered cynicism upon their respective films’ immediate releases? It’s quite possible that “Shutter Island” holds an equal potential for evolving significance—and only time will reveal it.

Meanwhile, enjoy “Shutter Island” for what it unquestionably is—a first-rate thriller.

Rating: 3 ½ out of four

Bottom line: Whether “Shutter Island” is a subtle masterpiece or just a well-made thriller is uncertain—but the film is undeniably enjoyable.