A shock is an enjoyable sensation. It’s an involuntary action, a muscle spasm from fright, and it comes not from your own mind or head, well at least not consciously, to catch one off guard. It’s nice to know that one’s own body has the ability to surprise you every now and again.
The ‘shock’ from watching a film gains as much from the paroxysm as it does from the tease. The aesthetics are now so common and recognisable that one will know when the shock is approaching. We wait for the shock, and we love its build. Its suspense.
Something lurks around the corner so violins begin to simmer, the camera barely goes faster than a creep. We know what ti expect; a red herring, a false alarm; or a flailing knife or zombie or vampire or sociopath, an abrupt interruption of the suspense. Like I said, it is a form of catharsis. The shock relieves one from the suspense. The shock is resolved and back to the narrative we go.
Shutter Island complicates this. Yes it uses these same techniques and ends to build its suspense, and yes there are shocks and jumps; but they never seem to have a resolution. Nightmare builds on nightmare whilst suspense spirals from their horrors. The ‘shock’ is not an endpoint to our discomfort in Shutter Island, it is merely a reoccurring peak. Instead of relieving us of suspense, Scorsese weaves it into the film’s very fabric, making it swirl here and break there, jaggedly spike up and then become so very faint, etching our response into a tormented Spirograph.
“Shutter Island starts working on us” wrote Roger Ebert in his review of the film “with the first musical notes under the Paramount logo’s mountain, even before the film starts.” It’s an important element to point out. Everything on-screen, and all that echoes from it, is constructed for disorientation. Sounds don’t seem to match that which occurs. Neither do the edits, it instead jumping from scene to scene with no indication other than setting. Characters’ dialogue runs into and over the following scene, as it does too over some montage sections, giving the film a certain seamlessness to it, as though it’s all one subjective strain of thought – like the way one leaps from place to place within a dream, or from place to purgatory within a nightmare.
And this is applied to the film’s supposed reality sections. The dream sequences themselves could have been lifted straight out of those in Max Payne, as though there’s an emptiness to everything, that scenery changes when you walk further down this corridor of horrors. And the snow falls. Or is it snow? They’re embers from the house fire your wife died in. Or did she?
If this was carried out by a lesser director, the film would have collapsed in upon itself. Yet with Scorsese’s experience, both aesthetic and narrative means to create doubt, mystery and suspicion are perfectly balanced and entwined. Likewise for the film’s twist. So many others have fallen to unneeded explanations in these instances, but Scorsese neither patronises or confuses his spectator. The twist will undoubtedly anger some – not in controversy, but more in a short-changed way. For those I recommend a second viewing. There is a lot more at work in this film to be taken in at first watch. And one must trust in Scorsese!
Additionally, the film’s final line still troubles me – as it did when it was first uttered, as it did on my half hour walk home. Much like the film, it is a cryptic poem. I won’t reproduce the words here as I believe that would lessen their first impact, but it’s those sorts of lines that give the narrative life outside of a 132 minute running time.
Shutter Island is a nightmare of a film, but in no way is that a bad thing.