Shutter Island – Review


Scorsese and DiCaprio fly into the Cuckoo’s Nest

Spoiler tags were created for a reason. In film forum threads the tags help to prevent people from reading spoilers pertaining to plots or characters. But my profound curiosity got the better of me one day when I clicked open a spoiler tag and read the resolution to Shutter Island. While this wouldn’t matter to anyone who has read the Dennis Lehane book from which the Martin Scorsese film is based, those who do click on a spoiler tag it’s like opening Pandora’s Box (or a can of worms).

With that in mind, I will do my best with this review and not divulge any important plot details.

Few directors are ever referenced as an adjective. You may have movies get compared to the works of other directors, but you never hear that a movie is “Cronenbergian” or “Kurosawian.” What you do get from time to time is reviewers saying a thriller is “Hitchcockian,” which is their way to make readers aware of director Alfred Hitchcock.

A year after Scorsese made Goodfellas he directed Cape Fear. It was a tense, backwoodsy thriller that is almost worthy of Hitchcock comparisons. Had Scorsese pulled away from the violent acts by ex-con/sociopath Max Cady, maybe then it would be a Hitchcockian thriller. But without the violence, Robert De Niro’s tattooed frame with biblical references (“Vengeance is Mine”) would have been for naught. The film may not be one of Scorsese’s ten greatest, but the southern potboiler plays better with repeated viewings.

The director may be synonymous with films about crime and mobsters, but Scorsese isn’t a one-trick pony; The Age of Innocence and The Last Temptation of Christ prove this much. So what’s he doing directing horror? A master of cinema, Scorsese hasn’t really done a horror movie (unless you count Cape Fear), although a number of his films do contain dark and sinister elements. Shutter Island isn’t horror in the traditional blood-and-guts sense. It’s Gothic horror with an element of pulp noir. At the very least, it’s a glorified B-movie from an A-list director.

That statement isn’t a knock against the film. Actually, thinking of Shutter Island in those terms only shows you how much of a craftsman Scorsese is, as he is able to take a generic plot and elevate the material with impressive direction. But while the style is reminiscent of films Val Lewton produced for RKO, Island fails to connect emotionally, despite a strong performance from Leonardo DiCaprio.

It’s 1954. Nearly a decade removed from the Second World War life continues to flourish (thanks to a baby boom), though not nearly as content as it was before the war. On Shutter Island, which is located off the coast of New England, is the Ashecliffe Hospital, an asylum for the criminally insane. Its coastline with rocks jutting out at all angles and its distance from the mainland is reassurance that no patient escapes the island. The only way on or off is by ferryboat. Taking the ferry to the island one fall afternoon is U.S. marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), both looking like traditional G-men with their fedora hats, beige trench coats and six-round revolvers. They are venturing to the island to investigate the disappearance of patient Rachel Solando, who vanished from her room without a trace. When the hospital’s head doctor (Ben Kingsley) proves unhelpful in matters pertaining to the investigation, it arouses suspicion. The further Teddy investigates the more he believes the hospital is doing more than simple rehabilitation.

Martin Scorsese has lined up an impressive cast of talent that also includes Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Max Von Sydow, Jackie Earle Haley and Elias Koteas (who some might have mistook for Robert De Niro in the trailer). In a nice twist, John Carroll Lynch, who played the believed Zodiac killer in Zodiac, and Ted Levine, who played Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, play the head guard and warden at the asylum. Even with this strong ensemble we get added characters that are inanimate objects. The island is a character. The Gothic architecture of the buildings on the island is a character. Even the strong pounding music is a character – it is so foreboding in the beginning that it spells out the evil that is in store for the next two hours.

The film also skewers our thought process by incorporating flashbacks and dream. Little by little we learn of Teddy’s life. He was one of the soldiers who helped to liberate the concentration camp at Dachau. His wife Delores (Michelle Williams) died in an apartment fire. We can see that his wife’s death is a wound that has yet to heal. But by only observing we can’t truly empathize with Teddy.

Shutter Island may not be one of Martin Scorsese’s strongest films, but it has given the sixty-seven-year-old director the opportunity to tap into genres he has never done before. With strong direction Scorsese holds on to his audience for as long as he possibly can until the last reveal. And it’s a reveal that will divide audiences, even though it isn’t all that shocking or surprising.

Director: Martin Scorsese
Notable Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams
Writers: Laeta Kalogridis, based on a novel by Dennis Lehane

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