Shutter Island

Shutter Island (2010): United States – directed by Martin Scorcese

Rated R by the MPAA – contains some violence, disturbing images and content, male nudity, language

Shutter Island might be considered Martin Scorcese’s foray into horror/psychological thriller territory, with elements of everything from Rosemary’s Baby, Jacob’s Ladder, the “Silent Hill” games, and H.P. Lovecraft.  To add further influences, the novel on which the film is based is written by Dennis Lehane, the author of the Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River novels.  Finally, the screenwriter is Laeta Kalogridis, whose myriad projects include executive producing on Avatar [review here], writing Pathfinder and Alexander, and also drafting the screenplay for Night Watch, one of Russia’s highest grossing films.

One might think that such a bizarre mix of influences could lead to a disjointed picture, but that’s not the case; Shutter Island manages to stay focused on its tale of supposed madness.  Without this excuse, however, it is even harder to admit that the film just isn’t very good.  There are amazing elements, to be sure, but it is also rather bloated and laden with a variety of technical issues.  To discuss the plot and some of the film’s flaws, there may be some spoilers ahead.

Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a U.S. Marshall.  He is introduced being sick on a ferry that’s plowing its way through thick Boston fog.  His accent is reminiscent of Lehane’s characters in other novels, who all seem to be from Boston.  His new partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), doesn’t seem bothered by the boat’s motion.  Heavy, oppressive strings accompany their trip into the fog toward an island.  Upon arrival they meet the Deputy Warden (John Carroll Lynch), who leads them to the island’s primary doctor.

Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) is head of the island’s mental hospital for the criminally insane.  Almost immediately it is evident that things are not as they appear; Cawley is a little standoffish, and his fellow doctor (The Seventh Seal’s [review here] Max von Sydow) doesn’t hesitate to delve deeply into Teddy’s mind.  Teddy, whose past includes a traumatic experience losing his wife in a fire and being one of the first American soldiers to discover the Dachau concentration camp during the war, is prone to putting up strong defensive mechanisms to cope with his problems.

But his job, at the moment, involves tracking down an escaped patient (Emily Mortimer) who drowned her three children and is unable to face the reality of her crimes.  She somehow vanished from her cell, but no one in the facility seems willing to talk to Teddy or his partner.  Pretty soon it becomes clear that Teddy has ulterior motives for taking this assignment, as he thinks the island is being used for shady experimental practices.  *Heavier spoilers may follow.

It’s quite clear that something isn’t right with Teddy from the beginning.  He is very much a Lovecraftian character, entering a strange island in the fog, and whether his descent into madness is about to begin, or is near its end, is what the movie takes its time to reveal.  The story, conceptually, has some high points.  Conspiracy theories, elements of madmen and psychoses, and strange characters and dangerous villains abound.

The biggest clue, early on, is the remarkable amount of continuity errors.  A woman drinks from a glass; her hand is empty when she is drinking, yet she manages to place an empty glass on the table.  Odd cuts create an off-putting atmosphere, hinting that perhaps Teddy isn’t right.  It’s only later, when the actual reality is presented, that the continuity errors become even more profound and distracting, indicative of little more than shoddy craftsmanship.

Some of Scorcese’s visual acuity is visible, particularly in a bravura shot following a character’s final push to scale a rock cliff.  Other times, a quick pan-and-cut is distracting and unnecessary.  Again, in the times when it’s possible that someone is imagining things, these are understandable.  The general feel, however, is that Marty knew he had to include some unique visual moments just because he is Marty.  They rarely add any depth to the film.  Strange editing also creates a disconnect; it’s not quite jumpy enough to be stylish, and ends up looking poorly edited.

But the film does some things right, too.  The opening section is very atmospheric, creating a terrible dread of the island.  The production is fully realized, from the 1950’s period attire and vehicles to the impressive storm that destroys the island.  The cast is strong, too, including Michelle Williams as Teddy’s dead wife, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley (from Watchmen), and Ted Levine (The Silence of the Lamb’s [review here] Buffalo Bill).  At times, however, the familiar faces further distract from the setting.

Martin Scorcese’s grand attempt at a psychological thriller is impressively staged but poorly stitched together.  The film is too long (a thrifty person with a pair of scissors could have been a great help) and the ground has been well trodden by better films.  There are elements I liked a great deal, as I’m rather fond of films featuring mental breakdowns, shifting realities, and oppressive conspiracy theories.  It’s a shame that more care wasn’t taken to trim down the picture and focus more closely on tightening the story.  Whatever you may think about the ending, the last two scenes are far better than the two or three immediately preceding them, in which most of the twists are revealed.  Ultimately, Shutter Island boils down to a shoddily crafted, predictable horror/thriller with certain elements that are memorable.

4 thoughts on “Shutter Island

  1. Margaret

    Great review! Philip and I just watched this film about two weeks ago. I actually did enjoy it, but I definitely felt that it was not put together the best it could have been. The thing the film did a good job of was making the viewer believe Teddy’s story. The empty glass thing was so distracting to me we had to skip back twice for me to watch it again…ridiculous. As psychological thrillers are about my favorite, I’m probably more forgiving of the glitches and would give the film an 8 out of 10, but it could have been better.

  2. Tim Irwin Post author

    Thanks for the kind words! I sort of did enjoy it, too, but more as a guilty pleasure since it’s not that well made. I liked the empty glass trick (we were in the dollar theater so couldn’t rewind, but we both noticed it), and they did do a great job telling everything from Teddy’s perspective, as you mentioned. I, too, am a sucker for psychological thrillers, so will wait until a good one comes out (though my level of “good” might rest with David Lynch, and that could be a problem).

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