Shutter Island

There’s an unmitigated, almost palpable atmosphere of impending doom that permeates throughout the entirety of Shutter Island, a psychological horror/thriller genre piece that plays out like a dark, malicious opera of madness and suspense.  Director Martin Scorcese’s talents as a filmmaker are out on full display in the flick; he crafts this sinister tale with such technical expertise and flair that its narrative failings seem trivial in comparison.  Indeed, Shutter Island is so aesthetically satisfying that most moviegoers will tolerate its unoriginal storyline as an excuse to experience some of the best pure cinematic artistry on the big screen nowadays.

An orchestral score booms ominously as Shutter Island opens with the image of an agrestic ferry carrying U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) through a dense fog to the film’s namesake.  It’s a sequence that would feel right at home in the original 1933 version of King Kong, an idea underscored by the mysterious, Skull Island-like appearance of Shutter island itself.  More so, the insane asylum/prison housed located there is visually realized as the sort of bleak, nightmarish world of dark, shadowy interiors and creepy, unsettling residents that would feel at home in a gothic German film of the 1920s (Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari come especially to mind).  Indeed, director Scorcese very much embraces the conventions of the classic horror genre with impressive style and gusto that works far more often than not.

Shutter Island is ultimately a noirish tale, one that follows the two Marshal’s descent into a disturbing, dangerously violent world populated largely by the criminally insane.  It’s the year 1954 and though the two have been sent solely to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a prisoner, Teddy (the film’s protagonist) seems to (and does) have a more personal motivation for being there.  His suspicions that there are hidden, sinister deeds being performed on the facility’s residents are all but confirmed by the odd behavior of the institution’s medical staff and personnel.  However, Teddy finds himself increasingly haunted by horrific dreams, painful migraines, and strange hallucinations as he begins to realize that the conspiracy around him may be more complex than even he imagined.

DiCaprio does an excellent job of realizing Teddy as more than just a film noir archetype (ie. the man with a dark past on a quest for the truth); he portrays him as a man both threatening and damaged in nature but sympathetic all the same.  While the supporting cast of the film is in general quite admirable as well (Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley, Patricia Clarkson- the list goes on) their characters tend to be one-dimensional or cliché in nature (the bland sidekick, the mysterious doctor, the crazy patient who is the only one that speaks the truth).  Michelle Williams (who plays Teddy’s deceased wife via flashbacks and dream sequences) offers what may the most underappreciated performance; the quiet melancholy she brings to her role is both quite heartbreaking and yet unsettling, increasingly so as the film progresses (and Teddy’s ability to separate his gruesome visions of her with everyday reality begins to distinguish completely).

Unfortunately, Shutter Island eventually accounts for the mysteries and strangeness of the plot with a concluding twist that is both tired and predictable.  It accounts for essentially all of the bizarre events that have built up to it in a neat and tidy but cheap fashion.  Arguably it is the most satisfying conclusion for everything that has previously transpired in the narrative- however, therein lies the film’s biggest problem.  Its plot simply does not examine the social and philosophical issues it raises (via its characters and dialogue) with enough depth.  Scorcese and his filmmaking crew do an excellent job of telling a mediocre story (which was based off a novel by Dennis Lehane) but cannot overcome its obvious limitations.

In the end though,  Shutter Island is a film that values style over substance, a flick that showcases Martin Scorcese’s abilities as a cinematic artist and storyteller- even in the face of subpar material.  It may be less than a masterpiece but it is still a magnificent bit of filmmaking all the same.

 

3 thoughts on “Shutter Island”

  1. Heyy,

    I’d just like to say that this is an excellently-written review. There’s too many reviews on this site that are just one paragraph long, or riddled with spelling and syntax errors, or give away the whole plot. I’d like to read more reviews that you’ve written, if you post them I’ll look out for them.

    Catherine

  2. I was disappointed with the film in general, but I did come away from it very satisfied with Scorsese’s directing and the overall style of the film. DiCaprio’s acting was great, and it had potential to be a really good film, but in the end I felt it was predictable and underwhelming.

    However, I wholeheartedly agree with Catherine: great review! This is the kind of review I wish I could find more often, and would make or break my decision to see a film. Thank you!

  3. well, littlezildjian, the film gave away the twist too quickly. I would recommend reading the book by Dennis Lehane, which I did a good two years before the film was released. It was much more controversial, and gave absolutely nothing away until the very end.

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