Shutter Island, dir. Martin Scorsese (2010)
As Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo approach Shutter Island by ferry, what strikes us is the sky: it goes on forever in a way that anyone from Boston knows is impossible, and the artificiality of the colors and the actors makes it clear that this isn’t Changeling or Schindler’s List. This is the past of film, not a film of the past, and it’s clear that Scorsese is taking his cues from Samuel Fuller’s camp experiments as much as Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological obsessions, tossed with a dose of Hiroshima Mon Amour.
The film itself is unerringly harrowing, composed of uneven realities interwoven with hallucinations and dreams that are puzzling without being gimmicky. The only mystery here lies not in DiCaprio’s identity but in his non-identity: why can’t he be what he is now? The film posits that DiCaprio’s own trauma has become inseparable from the trauma of the 20th century: his drowned children are the same children that lie in the Dachau snow. Yet by the end of the film, when all has been “revealed,” Scorsese has done such a good job rendering any revelation arbitrary that it rings more like a parody of a reveal than a true moment of enlightenment.
One of the film’s best moments comes when DiCaprio—fighting with an escaped inmate in the wave of a devastating storm—hears a brief exegesis on the hydrogen bomb. “Why would I ever want to leave here?” asks the violent psychotic. “They have H-bombs out there.” One of the most powerful poles of the 20th century—the bomb itself, the object that turned everyone paranoid and had everyone hiding under desks, next to filing cabinets. It’s from these 20th century sciences of destruction—clunky and creative, the American wartime avant-garde—that Shutter Island takes its potency.
In line with this, Shutter Island recognizes that it was in the Holocaust that the 20th century found its most terrifying and emblematic manifestation of all its potentiality. Everyone in the film looks like a Nazi, and whether or not they are is irrelevant. Within the first half hour we’re struck by flashbacks showing gaunt faces and barbed wire, paperwork residue of the Nazi machine floating serenely in a concentration camp office that looks, replete with filing cabinets, eerily functional and familiar. Mad scientists and totalitarianism: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union…and to complete the triumvirate, we need FDR and the United States, don’t we? Where was our Holocaust, our Gulag? That’s what Detective DiCaprio is looking for—the place where the United States caught up with the 20th century.