I wonder what confession would have been like with Martin Scorsese. (Legend has it he almost became a priest.) I picture myself (a good Catholic boy) confessing to some venial sin, and Father Scorsese…socking me in the jaw. He’d get my attention, no two ways about it. His sermons, doubtless, would be filled with anguished, sweaty, febrile saints. There’d be a lot of talk of blood, tough words on redemption. All the altar boys would look like Ray Liotta. By God, I’d be transfixed. As a director, Scorsese is Catholic the way Papal shoes are Catholic (N.B. the Pope’s shoes look like matador slippers). Marty’s new movie is for people who can pardon indulgence.
On a tiny, terrifying island off the coast of Massachusetts, there is a mental asylum…for the criminally insane. (This will not be the setting for a musical.) It’s 1954. A multiple child-murderer is on the lamb. She vanished from a locked cell. To investigate her disappearance, the authorities call upon the twitchiest G-man the government can muster. They need a man most likely to crack. With WWII still fresh in the public consciousness, H-bombs everywhere and phantom Commies rattling nerves, America is anxious. But as the G-man probes the island, it seems delirium is widening its reach.
Shame is the main focus here. The hero is haunted by what he saw during the liberation of Dachau. He believes he may have participated in murder (a word which – brace yourselves, etymology fans – has its roots in “secret killing”). For a Catholic like Scorsese (and, for all us Catholics really), shame is not so much a burden as a means to unburdening yourself: shame is a scalpel, it cuts through pretence, through ego and through vanity – exposing you, yes, but exposing with a view to self-knowledge. If you’re ashamed with good reason, you can seek penance. It’s telling that, during the liberation of Dachau, when the Americans find a Nazi who’s tried to shoot himself, the Nazi isn’t dead. Suicide is the opposite of shame. God, after all, needs you alive if you’re going to feel guilt.
Roiling from start, Leonardo DiCaprio looks like he hasn’t slept in weeks. Of course, his character is a widower, a drunk, a neurotic, and a patsy. But still. He looks rough. DiCaprio’s partnership with Scorsese has resulted in a high number of anguished roles, from the Bronx Hamlet he played in Gangs of New York to The Aviator’s urine-hoarding Howard Hughes. If the part sweats, Leo wants it. And Shutter Island is awash with ominous water. Leo, battling waves of melodrama, and gales of special effects, keeps his character grounded. He also has a savage pencil-doodling scene; literally, scribbling a misogynist psychopath into submission.
Spooky kids, bloody housewives, misshapen arsonists…Nazis. You can hardly move for terror on Shutter Island. But God, it looks good. Typical of the movie’s beautiful nightmare aesthetic, you even think “classy” when Michelle Williams is immolated. Leo’s worst fears are realised with impeccable artistry. People fall off cliffs, drown, starve, get shot, get stabbed, lay down with half their face shot off…and you swoon. Though this does detract from the horror of the proceedings, no movie can be considered a failure wherein a car burns like a funeral pyre. Dread is elegant here, but it isn’t false.
People aren’t happy in Scorsese movies. That’s how you know he’s Catholic. For a true Catholic, happiness is synonymous with hubris. In Shutter Island, someone asks, “Which would be worse, to live as a monster or to die as a good man?” You’ll notice there’s no third option (because we’re all guilty of something.) The moral here, as in a lot of Scorsese’s work, is that good men often delude themselves. At the end of Leo’s quest, he finds he was wrong about what he was after, and why. His certainties are wrecked, his sanity is questioned. He’s told that God loves violence. But God – like Scorsese – is not vindictive. Suffering isn’t suffering’s aim.