Review: Shutter Island or Not Frisch

Eyewear saw Shutter Island last night - how could I not? Scorsese is one of the best Hollywood directors of our time, and his sense of film history is second to none. Hearing he was doing a genre picture (which Sight & Sound observed is his "The Shining") from an auteur/ homage angle - referencing Fuller, Lewton, and Hitchock - was thrilling. The film itself is disappointing, if only because expectations were raised it might be a masterwork.

Instead, Shutter Island is a slow-moving, at times melodramatic, thinking-person's movie, with disconcertingly various elements - including ultra-violent depictions of Dachau, child murder, suicide, and mutilation; psychoanalysis; film theory; and 50s retro kitsch. Spoiler alert: the main problem is, anyone who knows the sub-genre of sane-men-in insane-asylums is likely to guess the "twist" - hardly a twist and more a foregone conclusion. There is, as a writer, only one binary option when putting a fish into a tank - either they belong there or need to get out, fast. In this film, both are true, and, to its tragic credit, neither would work. One recalls the novel I'm Not Stiller, by Swiss-German Max Frisch.

The subtext of the film is terrible and sombre - man's inhumanity to man and woman and child is so great - so monstrous - that "too much reality is hard to bear" - and a false sense of self might be more pragmatic (even heroic) than enduring the grimmer truth - that we are monsters and there is no God. As such, the film entirely explores the zeitgeist of the post-war period, 45-55, when Adorno-atom bombs-atheism fused with McCarthy, Freud, and fear. This was the classic noir period, and the best films of the time (Kiss Me Deadly for instance) reference paranoia, politics and sexy-violent mania potently.

Max Von Sydow and Ben Kingsley are well cast as the sinister shrinks - Kingsley was the post-war Gandhi who represents the best in mankind, and Von Sydow carries a great deal of cinematic angst when he casts a shadow. DiCaprio and Ruffalo are superb as 50s tough guy dicks - the way they carry themselves is spot-on. The music is ominous and almost impeccably assembled (a la Kubrick) from a catalogue of high-brow modernist European composers. The film is such a brilliant treatise on issues of cinema, Lacan and culture, it forgets to be entertaining. At times it is rivetingly strange and upsetting; at others comatose-dull. The final scene of the return of the repressed is strikingly paced for being both dull and upsetting - it really does represent the breaking through of an unacceptable memory in all its ambivalence (boredom/fear).

The main genius of the film is that it layers the various levels of what is shown and seen so that dream/ trauma/ memory/ hallucination/ "reality"/ recreation/ and play are indistinguishable for viewer and protagonist, and we are left, as an audience, asking, what were we seeing when we thought we saw it. The power of film to convey the inner psyche - the "mind" - is almost pre-linguistic in its force. This is its secret hold over us all - its Medusa mirror stage. Shutter Island unblinkingly exposes the violence of the gaze, the potential healing of self-reflection - and the terrible promise that oblivion holds for the anguished soul. This is the sort of film that will fail at the short-term Box Office, but be revisited in a few decades as a major achievement, if flawed.
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