Cult Classics: Shutter Island (2010)
By Jordan Goodier
Due to the nature of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, this review will be riddled with spoilers. If you have seen Shutter Island, read on! If you haven’t, I implore you to watch the film as soon as you are able. Shutter Island holds the spot of being one of my all time favorite films as well as being one of my favorite Scorsese films (the other being Gangs of New York). It’s said Scorsese is one of the greatest filmmakers of our time and I have to say he is absolutely one of my inspirations.
Shutter Island takes place in 1954 and follows the story of Edward Teddy Daniels; a decorated war veteran turned US Marshal, who begins investigating the case of an escaped prisoner/patient on Shutter Island; a place where a mental institution for the criminally insane has been set up by Doctor Cawley. Along with his new partner Chuck, they begin to uncover what appears to be a sinister conspiracy on the island.
The directing within the film is superb. The cinematography is as beautiful in some scenes as it is disturbing in others. Particular mention has to go to the scene in which Teddy is dreaming of his deceased wife in their apartment building. The building burns down around the two characters as teddy holds onto his wife, who is soaking wet with both water and blood (a clue to the actual events in which she was killed). Her body then turns to ash in Teddy’s hands. With the violin piece playing in the background of this scene, it made for some fairly disturbing imagery. This sort of cinematography was present throughout the rest of the film, and was extremely effective when the German concentration camp was shown in one of Teddy’s flashbacks. Hundreds of bodies lying in piles, covered in ice and snow struck home how horrific and nightmare-esc the whole war was. The impact of seeing the German Commandant’s deep red blood against this backdrop of white snow was equally disturbing.
There are clues to the truth (the twist near the end of the film) all throughout the film. Some clues are much more subtle than others and Scorsese manages to get these hints across with simple editing techniques. Some lines of dialogue are said when the characters aren’t saying them, for example. But then, only for a few seconds; if you aren’t paying attention, you don’t notice them. These sequences where there are simply two characters talking to one another are enhanced through the directing, where everything seems a little surreal, and not quite right. There are even scenes which are not blatant hallucinations or nightmares in which Scorsese uses this technique; particularly at the start of the film where Teddy meets Chuck for the first time. The technique of making the shots and dialogue not match up help to get across the idea that there is something wrong with Teddy’s mind. Needless to say, I thought the directing throughout the film was superb.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley and Michelle Williams head up a cast of incredible actors. Whilst the whole cast gave performances that were admirable, special mention has to go to DiCaprio and Michelle Williams for portraying their damaged characters so effectively. Williams, as Dolores, portrayed her character with a certain sense of helplessness, but she also had menace about her. Even through Teddy’s mind’s interpretation of her, she was a fairly accurate depiction of the woman that she truly was outside of Teddy’s broken mind. Michelle’s standout scene for me was at the climax of the film when Teddy remembers the events that caused him to lose his sanity. Dolores has completely lost touch with reality and her line about drying hers and Teddy’s dead children and then sitting them at the dinner table was truly disturbing.
Similarly, DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels gave a captivating performance as a man who was tortured by his past. Whether he was more tortured by what he did in the war or what he did to his wife is up for interpretation, though I believe the deaths of his children and then his wife by his own hand, may have personally affected him more. It’s hard to choose the scene in which was DiCaprio’s best of the film, so I shall list three that stand out for me. The first is the scene in the German concentration camp, when Teddy is staring down at the Commandant, who has messed up his own suicide. Teddy coldly stares down at the man that had personally oversaw the deaths of so many innocents and, as the Commandant tries to reach for his gun, Teddy slides the gun further away from him, so he can bleed to death; truly chilling stuff.
My second favorite scene is the scene in which DiCaprio converses with the man who’d apparently given him the information about Shutter Island so he could go there and expose the supposed atrocities going on there. Jackie Haley as George Noice gave a hell of a performance for the few minutes of screen time he had. I couldn’t help but feel incredibly sorry for this man, though he’d supposedly killed many innocent people and ended up in the ward in which only the most dangerous patients on Shutter Island are kept. After watching the film for the second time, when you know the twist ending, this scene (as well as many others throughout the film) can now be seen in a new light. “It’s about you, and Laeddis, that’s all it’s ever been about” isn’t perhaps the most memorable piece of dialogue from the film, but it’s by far the most important. The third scene that I found most impressive is the final scene of the film, and I’ll talk about that at the end of the review.
Mark Ruffalo plays Teddy’s partner Chuck incredibly well, but his performance wasn’t anything particularly impressive, although his chemistry with DiCaprio was obvious. Ben Kingsley as Doctor Cawley was a character who had my complete respect for what he was trying to do with the facility on Shutter Island. “I have this radical idea that if you treat a patient with respect, listen to him, try and understand, you just might reach him.”
I thought the ending was a stroke of genius. I couldn’t help but feel quite sad for Andrew as his whole story had been quite tragic and it ended in tragedy. It was subtle, but I found it tragic all the same. The first time I watched the film, I should have seen the ending coming, yet (despite the clues) I didn’t. My personal interpretation is that Andrew had been cured, and had not regressed back into his false reality. But he despised what he had done and who he was so much, that he decided instead of continuing his cycle of delusion, curing himself of it, and then regressing back into it – he wanted to be rid of it. He allowed Sheehan and Cawley to believe he had regressed so that they would be forced to perform trans-orbital lobotomy on him. The last line of the film is a question that will probably always stick in my mind. “Which would be worse -- to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?”
Honestly, I think this film is as near perfection as you can possibly get. I’m not of the mind that you can’t score a film a perfect score, simply because nothing can possibly be perfect. There has to be something to set the bar and I believe Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is a perfect psychological thriller film. Props to Laeta Kalogridis for the outstanding screenplay, to Martin Scorsese for his masterful directing and to the cast for their gripping performances.