Film review – Shutter Island (2010)

Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the novel Shutter Island (by Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone author Dennis Lehane) is a film that operates on a heightened level that almost makes a traditional narrative analysis redundant. While the core story of two US Marshals in 1954 investigating the seemingly impossible disappearance of an escapee from an island based prison for the criminally insane is compelling, the film’s ultimate achievement is its manipulation of perception on a filmic level. Even elements that may trick the untrained eye and ear into thinking that they are experiencing a flawed film are deliberately calculated stylistic and narrative elements that only fully make sense after the final dénouement.

Scorsese has often displayed a subjective flair in his filmmaking particularly in early films such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. In Shutter Island he pushes this one step further by representing Shutter Island’s Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane as an almost other worldly place designed to snare and foil US Marshal Teddy Daniels. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio in one of his strongest performances to-date, Daniels is a classic melancholic masculine Scorsese protagonist. Daniels is haunted by the death of his wife and his experiences as a soldier liberating the Dachau concentration camp. He is unpredictable, volatile and easily provoked. Yet he also possesses aspects of Twin Peaks’s memorable Special Agent Dale Cooper character in that he has a brilliant investigative mind, he is intuitive and he seems to receive information about the case from his dreams.

Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley), Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio)

While there are elements of Shutter Island that would not feel out of place in a David Lynch film, Scorsese’s real point-of-reference must surely be Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Scorsese may have even read Geoffrey Cocks’s book The Wolf at the Door where Cocks argues that the subtext of The Shining was the Holocaust. Not only does Scorsese use a lot of music by the Kubrick favoured composer György Ligeti but the use of sound, tracking shots and production design distinctively presents the Ashecliffe Hospital in a similar way to The Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Both are buildings filled with labyrinthine spaces that threaten to consume their occupants.

Shutter Island is the work of a true master who is completely accomplished in the art of filmmaking. It is apparent from almost the beginning of Shutter Island that there is something strange going on and the enjoyment is in the experience of watching it all unfold. Shutter Island is a film that leaves you feeling satisfied but during the end credits your brain will start to churn. As the film’s impact sinks deeper and deeper into your mind you will start to truly appreciate how ingenious it is on so many levels. An hour later you will be making plans to see it again.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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  1. Hi Matt – Jackie Earle is sensational as is everybody who appears in this film. I don’t want to give too much away (although the cast list is in plain view on places such as IMDb) but there are a lot of interesting and well-known actors who have roles in this film and they all do brilliantly.

  2. I deliberately didn’t read your review until I’d seen the film and was really keen to share the way I felt the film has resonances with The Shining and presto, you’d picked up on that too! Great minds, huh?

    The more I think about Shutter Island the more I really think it’s Scorsese’s most enigmatic work in years – and transcends the fairly generic setting of the asylum and the way that’s been used before in various other ‘paranoid’ narratives.

    To say the film’s merits rests with its dénouement – as some other critics have done – and whether or not the audience anticipates it or not, I think is to entirely overlook the utterly fascinating and visually arresting ways in which Scorsese brings us to the ending.

    And as you pointed out, the way he does leaves no doubt as to the veracity of his claims to cinematic mastery!

  3. I agree with you on many of your points but I’m torn on this one. I really wanted to love it. Atmospherically the film is sensational; the scene where Michelle Williams’s sweat and tears drip into a pool of blood on the floor as the ashes from her singed body rain down in the room is just…sublimely twisted. And I agree that DiCaprio was terrific. However I felt Scorsese invested way too much weight in the twist everybody saw coming (my friend picked it just from having watched the trailer!) which is a sure-fire way to make audiences feel less than satisfied – or, at the least, to make them feel they are smarter than the film. I spoke with a friend last night who read the book and reckoned that the twist occured about 2/3 of the way through it, leaving a whole other act afterwards. I think that would have been a better choice.

  4. I see where you are coming from Luke but I have to agree with Dr. Philm on this one as I don’t think the twist itself is really the issue with Shutter Island. I had actually also figured it out from the trailer and I think it is quite obvious from very early in the film what is going on. In fact, the experience of watching Shutter Island reminded me of David Cronenberg’s Spider where the supposed twist was blatantly and deliberately obvious from the start with the audience being clued into what is going on before the protagonist is. As with Shutter Island, it’s the journey and not the destination that counts.

    I actually had severe reservations at key points during Shutter Island where I furiously scribbled notes questioning key aspects of the film but afterwards it all fell into place and realised that Scorsese’s trick was to make me think that I was smarter than his film when in the end I really wasn’t.

  5. I think the difficulty with a film like Shutter Island is that it is essentially a genre film that refuses to adhere, so where in the traditional ‘paranoiac thriller’ the ‘ending’ is granted central importance, the way in which Scorsese ends the film, not with the ‘revelation’ but with the subsequent exchange between two of the main characters suggests to me that the so-called twist really wasn’t key to the film – I think Scorsese is smart enough to understand where to position his audience and maybe I’m over-evaluating the film but the more I consider it the more I appreciate it, not in terms of generic merit but more for its exploration of a pathological psyche and violence.

    I do appreciate Luke’s point about a possible earlier revelation, although that would’ve change the dynamic of the film to a large degree and that is something that is far more forgivable on the page then on the screen – and I wonder if that same audience would’ve found an extended post-twist narrative equally unsatisfying on many levels.

    [I know neither of you have suggested it but I am frustrated by comments made by Paatsch and co. who suggest those who have praised Shutter Island only do so because it’s a ‘Scorsese’ film – being a ‘Scorsese film’ certainly didn’t help the critical response to Gangs of NY and I’ll be the first to admit the flaws with most of his work over the past decade but I think this is a step up.]

    Either way, I’ll be interested to see what I think after a re-watch which I hope to do soon.

  6. Well, their claim is certainly unfounded and generalizes appreciators of Shutter Island in an unfair way. I am a massive fan of Scorsese’s work, but I will admit that I have not been so thrilled about some of his previous projects. However, I fell in love with Shutter Island‘s terrific performances, gorgeous design, and, like The Aviator, Scorsese’s ability to brilliantly capture the look of the period, from the set design to the costumes.

    Oh, and I do agree that Shutter Island is not so much about the twist as it is about the journey and the questions raised by the revelation itself. This is helped immensely by the little details from the production design, the performances, etc…

  7. I appreciate the comment about Kubrick’s The Shining being a significant point of reference, and the mention of Geoffery Cock’s thesis about the film’s subtext being rooted in the holocaust. Almost nobody I have talked to seems to pick up on the connection between The Shining and Shutter Island – even though there are aural cues right out of The Shining that are placed in the opening credit sequence of Shutter Island. I think Scorsese made a conscious (if not pretentious) effort to give Kubrick a little tipping-of-the-hat.

  8. Scorsese’s invocation of madness in Shutter Island is as satisfying as anything he’s filmed in twenty years. The Departed was a good time too, and so was Casino, but neither did much to grow the director beyond the walls of his comfort zone. Shutter Island, on the other hand, pushes our conception of Scorsese to the brink. It tests him, and he comes out the cleverer for it, proving that he has what it takes to navigate through the film’s several timeframes and planes of consciousness both the old fashioned way – with a system of symbols triggering the narrative from one association to the next – just as he and his editor, the amazing Thelma Schoonmacher, shuffle us through a trick deck of visual sleights of hand. Like something out of Vertigo, disorienting shifts between points of view – shots that begin (it seems) from one perspective and end up (it seems) from another – evoke the kind of psychological rupture lesser directors would fob off with cosmetic gimmicks, nutty angles, and (God help us) the standard hand-held effect (scary!).

  9. *** CINEMA AUTOPSY EDIT – Spoiler warning ***

    I came out of the movie thinking De caprio was never actually insane, but instead their whole experiment was to make himself think he was insane. Any thoughts on that?

  10. Lots of fantastic discussion here about this film – thanks everybody for contributing! I love enthusiastic and informed conversation about cinema.

    Alex – I think your suggestion is a possibility that the film raises and taunts us with but I ultimately feel that the film does conclude firmly asserting the generally accepted scenario.

  11. *** CINEMA AUTOPSY EDIT – Spoiler Warning ***

    Alex, I thought that until the very end, where his “partner” asks him how he is feeling, when Leo shows that he has regressed back into his delusion his partner looks toward Ben Kingsly and give’s the..”no” head nod. Had it been a set up, that scene would have never took place.

  12. I was actually bent on this one. I wanted a victory for Leo or at least an epologue that would give me confidence that my empathy would be rewarded. Scorsese’s psyco-macabre jaunts through out the film made me feel like I was in a De Palma thriller. I did enjoy the film very much if enjoy is the appropriate emotion. I think the Director sucked me in by his perfection as a salesman of having a nervous breakdown is something maybe I, the viewer, am entitled to falling victum. Your right Thomas, I have an itch to see it again. I must be slightly off balance.

    Ah Thomas I almost forgot; did you ever get the feeling that Ben Kingsley looked at times like he was not really up to speed with the contextual meaning and sequence of his lines as Scorsese laid out. He acutally looked like at times like he was faking it, because he really was not sure that he and the director were of the same understanding of the message he was asked to deliver to the audience. I was dissapointed with his lack of believability , however I may have been the one not up to speed.

  13. Having seen this 3 times I can honestly say it only got better. I’d have given it a B to B+ first time out but on subsequent viewings I’m up to A or A+. So many brilliant scenes and performances. It clearly is multi layered and everything is clearly geared to the main characters’ journey which is not at all outside the boundaries of earlier Scorsese masterpieces. I’ll be interested in seeing how this one is viewed within a few years and if the bad reviews fall away.


    So everyone picked up on the ending? I’m not sure as I’m reading all the comments here, but I think that he acted insane at the end after having regressed into a ‘normal’ person. Why, because obviously he did not want to live the rest of his life knowing what had happened and what he had done, ‘a monster’ he refers to himself as, who I think would rather die or live as Teddy.

  15. Anyone think that the movie was deliberately made to feel sort of clumsy, heavy handed, and even awkward UNTIL the scene in the lighthouse, when it all came together? Seemed to me that even Leo’s acting suddenly took off. Wondering if the first part was intended to clue us in to the fact that it was all “fake”….

  16. Hi Jorge – I think what you’ve said is exactly the case. The “bad filmmaking” aspects are very much deliberate to clue us into the fact that all is not what it seems. In fact, I don’t even believe that this film has a twist or a big reveal. I think the audience are supposed to figure out what is going on long before Leo’s character does.

  17. Dear Thomas,

    I think you are spot on the money. If the ‘big twist’ was really mind-blowing, then I’d guess that you were probably half asleep for most of the film.

    @ Jorge
    I don’t think Leo’s acting was fake as such, more so very deliberate and heavily naive. I thought he did a good job.

    Dave @ filmstank

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