Review – Shutter Island

Shutter Island [2010]

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: Laeta Kalogridis

Note: There are inevitably going to be some spoilers in reviewing and discussing this film. It’s impossible. I’d rather just review it honestly than try not to reveal its secrets. If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t read this review (unless you’re a masochist and like spoilers). You have been warned.

From its opening musical notes and first few scenes to the last shot of the film, Shutter Island conveys a sense of dread that never really leaves you. Watching it, I was once again reminded of a master filmmaker working at the top of his craft. Here is a film that latches onto you and never really lets you go, even after it’s over. It would be an injustice to say this film is anything less than a mind fuck, and that’s exactly what Scorsese wants. He wants to evoke the confusion and darkness within our minds. Yet wanting to do this and succeeding in doing so are two different things, and the fact that Scorsese succeeds, and does so with such an undeniable eye and ear for the genre in which he’s working, is what elevates Shutter Island above a simple thriller into a film of haunting, visceral power.

The film follows two U.S. Marshals, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). They’ve been dispatched to Shutter Island to solve the crime of a patient who has gone missing, seemingly out of thin air. The island, which was once home to a fortress from the civil war, has been converted into a fortress for the mentally insane. It’s not soon before you start to question the intentions and actions of those who are supposedly trying to “help” these people. Among them are Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), who at first seems trustworthy enough, but then why does his smile, or the faintest look in his eye, worry us? Then there is Dr. Naehrig (Max von Sydow, in a pitch-perfect performance), a German psychiatrist we never quite feel comfortable around. The woman who escaped is a dangerous psychotic who murdered her three children by drowning them in a lake, we’re told. Teddy has other intentions, though. He’s not simply on Shutter Island to find out what happened to the missing patient, but to find someone else, a man known as Andrew Laeddis. Laeddis, he explains, was a maintenance man working in Teddy’s apartment and who set it on fire, killing his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams). Teddy himself seems to have some demons from his past, having been part of a unit in World War II to free a Nazi death camp and then subsequently shoot the guards responsible for the deaths of so many. He’s been scarred for life.

I dare not reveal more, and I feel as though I’ve already revealed too much. If my explanation of the basic story seems slightly convoluted, that’s perhaps because the story is. It’s a weaving, webbed story. Yet Scorsese keeps things understandable as long as he possibly can. That’s the point. The story is meant to dissolve into confusion, meant to put our minds in a state of unease. The film is saturated in colors that set the right mood and tone; the bright lights of day, the dreary darks of night, or the lack of tone when it’s called for. Throughout the film, we’re taken inside the head of Teddy Daniels. He dreams of his dead wife, and the colors of her hair, her skin, her dress, come to life. We’re taken into the study of Dr. Naehrig, and the palette is drenched in dark reds and a foreboding atmosphere.

This is a movie about feeling, and about sensory details. While Teddy tries to figure out what’s happening, we too try to figure out what’s happening. Tricks of the camera or what appear at first to be mistakes are soon revealed to have bee entirely intentional (notice the glass of water in a scene earlier in the movie to see what I mean). How much of what we’re being told is the truth and how much lies? How much is fact and how much fiction? In as much as Teddy never seems quite sure, neither do we. It’s a simply concept on paper, but it’s so difficult to execute such a thing, with an always-impending sense of dread drenched over each frame.

And through all of this is Leonardo DiCaprio, in one is undoubtedly one of his best performances to date. He said in an interview that he likes characters that aren’t at first what they seem. Teddy Daniels is a character that exemplifies this. But he’s not so simple. There’s layers to his psyche that are slowly revealed and unraveled as we progress through the film, and at every moment, DiCaprio keeps us engaged, questioning, wanting to know more. And he plays every moment so convincingly that when the twists and turns arise, we’re as surprised as Teddy. Furthermore, DiCaprio has to channel such a wide range of emotions, in such a variety of situations, that I was amazed at how successfully he pulled them off.

And that’s so much of this movie. If DiCaprio’s performance were not convincing, and if Scorsese’s direction not as sure as it is, this movie could easily have been a complete waste. Yet it is not. In so many ways, the two of them are walking a tightrope. By the end of the movie I felt as if the balancing act had more than paid off.

Some audience members may feel cheated by not only the film, but also its ending (which as already received its fair share of criticism). I don’t think it’s necessarily fair criticism. If people are looking for logic grounded in reality, they should look elsewhere. Shutter Island is not about logical conclusions. After seeing it once I’m not even sure of some of the things I saw, or think I saw. It’s a film I feel I need to see again. What I do know is that by the end, I was convinced of one thing: Shutter Island had a hold on me. And things that I would have normally dismissed as amateurish mistakes or bad choices I eventually realized were all part of the game. If you’re willing to play the game, you won’t be disappointed.

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2 Responses to Review – Shutter Island

  1. Castor says:

    I absolutely loved this movie thanks to the great cast and the masterful direction by Scorsese. It’s odd that they marketed that movie as an horror flick, and that might have contributed to how polarized the reactions have been.

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