Shutter Island: Martin Scorsese’s Homage to Film Noir

During the last decade, American auteur Martin Scorsese found himself at a crossroads as a director; while he had recently completed a string of his well-known mafia dramas, punctuated by a few art-house period pieces, his twenty-year collaborative muse, Robert DeNiro, had proved too advanced in age to play the younger characters associated with box-office success. Beginning in 2002, Scorsese initiated a string of collaborative efforts with Leonardo DiCaprio, commencing with the epic Gangs of New York, and culminating with a decidedly modern take on the metropolis’ wide-reaching financial hegemony, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Although each of the five DiCaprio-driven vehicles were successes in their own right, Scorsese opted to vary the genre of each from film to film, each garnering their respective shares of critical praise and skepticism. In 2010, the director made what was regarded as his most commercial effort in nearly twenty years, a traditional film noir suspense thriller that, in Scorsese’s hands, was anything but truly traditional. Instead, 2010’s Shutter Island included all the well-known tropes of noir, Hitchcock-style psychology, a historical dramatic backdrop, and enough plot twists to stand out among the director’s regularly dramatic oeuvre. Telling the nightmarish tale of a U.S. Marshall investigating the mysterious disappearance of a patient at the heavily-guarded psychiatric facility on the eponymously named ‘Shutter Island,’ the film not only offered a visual throwback to classic suspense films by placing the story in the years immediately following WWII, but also including numerous cinematography and editing techniques associated with that timeframe. Touting an A-list cast that included DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, and Max Von Sydow—but when viewed among Scorsese’s vast filmography, how does Shutter Island stand up a decade later? Modern YouTubers have taken a second look at the director’s deliberate take on the film noir style. At Wisecrack, commentators noted that the film had the unfortunate timing of coming along during a period when many suspense films incorporated a similar twist ending, one which provided an “it was all a dream”-style aesthetic that was not, on the whole, innovative. The YouTuber stated:

In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, a lot of movies featured a twist where our protagonist warps perspective; Fight Club, A Beautiful Mind, The Machinist, and Identity, etc. Coming in 2010, it seemed like Shutter Island was a little late to the party, leaving us at Wisecrack wondering, ‘Is that all there is to it? Is this movie smart enough to be what you would expect out of one of America’s most celebrated filmmakers?’ … It’s helpful here to contextualize this movie as an homage to high-and low-brow film noir traditions.

For YouTuber Jeremy Jahns, however, the technical wizardry and solid acting performances of Shutter Island were enough to set the film apart from its similar contemporaries. Jahns remarked:

Now, I really did enjoy this movie, but for me, any movie that takes place in a ‘puzzle factory’ has an automatic creepy factor to it … As for the acting, it was pretty solid in this movie. Ben Kingsley plays the head psychiatrist on Shutter Island … DiCaprio is also really good in it, and I’m a guy, so there was a time when I just hated DiCaprio…and for the past few years, he’s established himself as a really good actor.

At this, Wisecrack concurs that Scorsese’s masterful aesthetic works to supersede the film’s overall shortcomings. In their own reassessment, the YouTuber continued:

Scorsese uses every tool in his cinematic toolbox to convey [this film’s] warped reality … While plenty of films use a crap-ton of special effects, they’re generally employed to achieve visual believability; here, all of the special effects work to create a slightly artificial reality—this is fitting for a movie where 90 percent of the action takes place within a giant, performative charade.

The Wisecrack commentators added that one of the facets of Shutter Island that does work, however, were the psychological aspects of the storyline—a direct homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s later work with the Hollywood studio system. Wisecrack added:

At its core, Shutter Island is about a man who refused to acknowledge large squats of his inner self, and so he creates an alternate reality … Indeed, Teddy has closed himself off from the traumas of his past, and can only reckon with those memories by dreaming them or by projecting them onto other peoples’ lives … He’s living in a fantasy work lurking with sinister, presumably imagined threats.

As far as Scorsese’s use of techniques associated with the classic suspense dramas of the 1940s and 1950s, Wisecrack found that the film’s technical level was strong enough to work as a sort of “guidebook” on old fashioned stylings. The YouTuber continued:

Scorsese is a grade-A film nerd, and that nerdiness is on full display in Shutter Island; the film is littered with references to other movies—especially film noirs, but also other classics about madness and psychosis, like Suspiria (1977) and Shock Corridor (1963). His clearest influence, though, is Alfred Hitchcock, who popularized the modern use of the psychological subjectivity, via an ‘unreliable narrator’ trope.

YouTube commentator Mark Kermode likewise acknowledged Scorsese’s deliberate and accurate usage of time-tested film noir style tropes, but still found the movie to be more as a pastiche than a true entry to the genre. He noted:

A couple of people, in looking at the film, have said that it is essentially ‘silly’—and it is as ripe and silly as anything. It’s deliberately a ‘B-movie,’ to some extent, and harkens back to [Scorsese’s] remake of Cape Fear (1991) … It reminded me of the Sam Fuller film, Shock Corridor.

In his assessment, Kermode added:

Now, I enjoyed it very much—I enjoyed it, although it’s completely ridiculous: it’s ‘honk-quack-brat soundtrack,’ it’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance, you know, chewing the scenery, and Sir Ben Kingsley … But I enjoyed it, and of course, the real difference between it and a genuine ‘B-movie,’ is that it cost a lot more, it’s got much more famous actors, it has much higher production values … and the expectations are much higher.

YouTuber Tyler Mowery noted that one of the film’s strongest suits is its basis on solid source material—in this case, a bestselling novel by the same author of Mystic River and Gone Baby, Gone. In his own commentary, Mowery singled out the storytelling devices that worked best:

Shutter Island is a film built to end in a twist that no one is supposed to see coming—and that is that the film’s protagonist, Teddy Daniels is actually Andrew Laeddis, a mental patient at [the asylum] who is the centerpiece of an elaborate scheme to renew his mental health … When people look back on this film, the most important symbol they usually pull out are those of fire and water: fire represents the fantasy that Andrew has created around himself … and water represents what really happened to his wife and children.

Building off of that theme, Mowery added:

This film tells us over and over that Teddy is in a fantasy world; the movie consistently jabs at what he consider to be true—but we ignore most of this information as we watch the film. Martin Scorsese used subtle story hits and cinematography and acting to inform the audience of the film’s true reality…

And while Shutter Island may not find its place on anyone’s list of Martin Scorsese’s most important work as a great American film auteur, at the time of its release in 2010, Shutter Island was a major box-office hit for the director, setting him back on course for another decade of critically-acclaimed, personal work. Jeremy Jahns concluded:

This movie does a really good job of making you feel like you’re on an island full of people who are just out of their minds … There was talk that this movie would have been up for Best Picture at the Oscars had it come out [as originally slated] in November. I don’t really know about that, but maybe if they had a category for ‘enjoyable psychological thrillers that shows the other side of Scorsese,’ I be up for that…

In his own conclusion, YouTuber Tyler Mowery added:

This film tells the audience the truth the entire time, and not just through symbolism, but also through cinematography, acting, and directing … Each scene is constructed in a way to show us what is happening, but we still do not understand the truth, and I think this is what the film is all about: we have the ability to ignore reality, even if it is staring us in the face.