Obvious Is as Obvious Does
Gee, for some really weird inexplicable reason, I cannot get the voice of the fantastic Mrs. Fox out of my head. When she discovers her husband, the felonious Mr. Fox, up to no good (this is in the recent Wes Anderson animated film, you see, not in Shutter Island) — up to no good that he should know to avoid — she scolds, “If what I think is happening here, is happening here, it better not be.”
Perhaps it’s because I can’t believe that everyone involved in Shutter Island — from novelist Dennis Lehane to screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis to director Martin Scorsese to Scorsese’s new onscreen alter ego, star Leonardo DiCaprio — thought they could get away with this. And while we’re all watching! Really, dudes and dudette? Have you not seen the 943 other thriller-in-an-asylum movies? You know, the 943 other films that go in precisely the same direction this one goes in?
Now, it’s true that this is Scorsese (The Departed, The Aviator), so it’s more stylish than any given made-for-SyFy flick, all misty mysteriousness and some very fine performances — particularly DiCaprio’s… But no: I refuse to believe that Scorsese, who made Boxcar Bertha in 1972 for Roger Corman, is unfamiliar with cheap pulpy cinematic thrills.
And so sitting through Shutter Island — which is about an hour longer than it should be, or would be if it admitted that it’s just one more cheesy psych-out — becomes a game of second guessing oneself, if one is like me and keeps waiting and hoping and praying that what it looks like is happening here ain’t actually happening here, cuz if it is… *headsmack*. Surely Lehane (Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River) and Kalogridis (Pathfinder, Alexander) and hence Scorsese are merely waiting for the right moment to pounce and declare, “Aha! Fooled ja!”
That moment never comes. And in retrospect, one has to marvel that it does not, that it was never in Scorsese’s mind in the first place. Why else attack us, as the film opens, with potents and omens, as a ship slips out of the fog of outer Boston harbor approaching remote Shutter Island, the ominous, portentuous score booming with portenous omens, as U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio: Body of Lies, Blood Diamond) and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo [Where the Wild Things Are, The Brothers Bloom], also very fine) arrive to investigate the escape of a dangerous prisoner-patient from the hospital for the criminally insane that inhabits the island? Honestly, I’ve never felt so assaulted by a movie soundtrack: boom BOOM BOOM it goes, like war drums as Teddy and Chuck have to give up their sidearms and the maximum security gates of the facility BANG shut behind them, which only makes any kind of reasonable sense, which can only be seen as something other than a madman director engaging in histrionics if the director is otherwise trying to imply — however sledgehammer-y — that There’s Something Going On, Isn’t There?
I’m trying to give Scorsese the benefit of the doubt when I say that perhaps he was attempting a double or even a triple fakeout: Because what it looks like is going on here actually is going on here, Scorsese tries to divert us for a while by figuratively getting all insulted: “C’mon! Would I really be so obvious? Something else must be going on here, dont’cha think?” Except it isn’t.
The character that everyone talks about but who is never seen? That’s gotta mean something, right? The thing that Teddy says is “important” — that’s another triple fakeout, right, meant to keep us tumbling around for a while? “Surely this is important,” we tell ourselves, “because otherwise why would Leo mention it? But that’s just the movie distracting us, right, by shining so bright a light on something that it should be keeping secret?” And then your head starts to hurt, kinda like the migraines that plague Teddy, who also has portentous, ominous nightmares about concentration camps (he was at the liberation of Dachau as an army grunt 10 years earlier).
For while, I tried to keep in mind that maxim: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” Was I just being unreasonably paranoid in thinking the worst of Scorsese and Co.? Or was I just going crazy trying to prevent myself from going crazy?
But no: I was entirely justified in believing that was it looked like was going on was going on, and entirely justified in feeling a little cheated by it.