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Shutter Island (2010) ****

February 19, 2010


Written by: Laeta Kalogridis (screenplay) and Dennis Lehane (novel)

Produced by: Brad Fischer, Mike Medavoy, Arnold Messer, and Martin Scorsese

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Rated R for disturbing violent content, language, and some nudity

138 min.

U.S. Release Date: February 19, 2010

There are two major themes that are woven through director Martin Scorsese’s body of work: violence, and the effect that violence has on the human psyche.  The Oscar-winning director’s latest release, “Shutter Island”, is no different.  The film manages to take the audience on a psychological tailspin along with the lead character as the troubled island and all of its mysteries take a toll on his mind.  Is “Shutter Island” crazy for crazy’s sake, or is there a method to Scorsese’s madness?

U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), are assigning to investigate the disappearance of a patient at Boston Harbor’s Shutter Island Ashecliffe Hospital.  As Daniels and Aule interview patients and workers at the hospital, it becomes clear that there is something more going on at Ashecliffe than a missing persons case.  Patients are afraid to speak to the marshals, while the overseers and doctors (played excellently by Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow) of the hospital seem to be hiding any information they can.

The deeper and deeper the marshals get into the goings on at the hospital, it becomes clear that Daniels is personally invested in this case and has a history with certain people on the island.  The closer Daniels gets to some answers, the more reckless he becomes, and the more reckless he becomes, the tighter a grip the island seems to have on him.  The plot will take you on many twists and turns, as the true characters of Teddy Daniels, Ashecliffe hospital, and Shutter Island become clearer, yet more twisted at the same time.

Now, back to the violence.  “Shutter Island” explores the issue of violence, and the effect that violence has on the human mind.  A typical Scorsese-trademarked picture is notorious for violence and the frivolous depiction of it.  After creating so many films that are based around men using violence to get what they want and to get ahead in life, “Shutter Island” speaks like an introspective on Scorsese’s entire career.

Teddy Daniels is a veteran of World War II, a job that took him to a concentration camp on a mission of liberation.  While at the camp, Daniels witnesses the aftermath of the horrific violence that took place during the Holocaust, and the various ways it effects the abused and perpetrators alike.  Upon returning home, he loses his wife and child in a fire that engulfs his apartment building.  Daniels is not the same person he once was prior to these events, and his brain is the most damaged result.

The issue is raised a few times throughout the film: are we, as humans, violent beings by nature?  The warden at Ashecliffe certainly thinks so.  In a brief conversation with Daniels about this topic, the warden says, “If I was the only thing standing between you and a meal, you’d crack my skull open with a rock.”  Humans are wired to be survivalists, but is violence the first or last resort?  After the effects that violence has on Teddy Daniels’s life, Scorsese makes the statement that humans aren’t made for it.  Violence can cause the human mind to fracture, contort, and twist to forget it was ever a witness to it.

As a long-time Scorsese fan, I can confidently say that this is one of the finer pieces of work he has produced in quite a while.  The visual elements of this film are executed impeccably, as Scorsese paints a dark and foreboding picture of Shutter Island that is so vivid, it acts as a character unto itself.  Thelma Schoonmaker (Scorsese’s long-time editor) pieces the film’s shots together to tell a visual story that will still be effective after several viewings.  Even this early on in the year, I can say that I expect to see Schoonmaker on the short list of nominees for Best Editing at the Oscars (an award she has won three times previously – all for Scorsese films).

From a storytelling perspective, “Shutter Island” gives you much more than just what is shown on the screen.  Many times, after a film is done, the afterthought of the experienced film is simply not there.  For this film, value will continue to be extracted from the ticket price even days after a viewing.  Continuing to think about and explore the themes of this movie is almost as much fun as the initial viewing itself.

As Teddy Daniels, Leonardo DiCaprio again proves why he is easily one of the best actors of his generation.  The complexity of Teddy Daniels as a character is translated seamlessly to the screen by DiCaprio, as the audience will experience all the physical and psychological anguish of this character throughout this difficult journey.

Many “pundits” have argued that Scorsese’s Best Picture and Best Director wins at the 2007 Academy Awards for “The Departed” were “body of work” awards, and they quite possibly were.  Coming off of those wins, there is definitely no “Oscar lull” for Scorsese.  After seeing this movie, I am upset that “The Departed” got all the praise it did because “Shutter Island” deserves all of that praise and more.  The issues that this film brings up not only makes me want a second viewing, but also a chance to re-watch some of Scorsese’s old classics after learning the perspective that he shares in “Shutter Island”.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Lauri permalink
    February 19, 2010 9:02 am

    Thanks for the review, Paul. It makes me even more excited (than I already was) about seeing the movie. I’m a big fan of the Scorsese/DiCaprio pairing, and this sounds like another winner.

  2. windi permalink
    February 19, 2010 4:09 pm

    Matt and I went and saw this today, and it was fantastic! The previews paint it as somewhat different than what it really was, but I’d say the movie was even better! I know the year is young, but I cannot imagine it not being in my top 10 for the year!

  3. t.leigh permalink
    March 1, 2010 7:20 pm

    I wholeheartedly concur with the reading of Shutter Island as methodically ‘crazy’. The clear perspective of violence as detrimental to the human mind was artfully balanced with the nonsensicalities of the setting. Violence and Sanity, premised as mutually-exclusive (i.e. concerning the behavior of the imprisoned) and progressively justified as compatible (i.e. concerning the behavior of the imprisoners) make a gruesome playground of the Island, rightly asserted by Mr. Balsom as a character. The frightful Island disarms the viewer toward Daniels only to reveal his own mind’s disorientation (and thus, ours) from the violent havoc of his past. The only difficulty I have with this film, if there is, in fact, an underlying perspective that human minds are not made to undergo Violence, is that Scorsese requires the viewer to experience such illustrative depictions (i.e. the repetitive shots of the flapping skin hanging from the not-quite-dead officer in Daniels’ flashbacks) of that which he insists our human minds are not made to withstand. I found the scenes that Daniels was supposedly avoiding (i.e. his three dead children floating in the lake) far more tolerable than the scenes he escaped to…

  4. Abigail permalink
    March 4, 2010 9:07 am

    I don’t think that it was meant to lean one way or the other (sane or insane). It was up to the viewer, to use their own logic and thats the beauty of the movie. It’s meant to make you doubt yourself and its meant for people to have different opinions. My personal thought is that he wasn’t insane due to teddy’s statement at the end of the movement. but the arguments are just as good the other way. There is purposley NO solution. let the endless debate begin!

    Amazing movie though. Dicaprio was great.

    • March 4, 2010 9:12 am

      After thinking about it more, I think that the line that Leo delivers in the end of the film is completely useless if he’s not giving it from a completely lucid state. His character couldn’t live with the guilt that he walked around with on a daily basis, which is why he posed as someone else for so long. He created a false history where the bad things that happened in his past were not his fault, and events which he could feel no guilt for. After delivering that memorable line in the final scene (I’m trying to stay away from spoilers as much as I can), he chooses his fate because it means that he no longer has to live with that guilt. Despite mixed reviews, I love this film. Scorsese hasn’t skipped a beat.

      • windi permalink
        March 25, 2010 6:31 pm

        Paul wrote: After thinking about it more, I think that the line that Leo delivers in the end of the film is completely useless if he’s not giving it from a completely lucid state.

        I completely agree. He had to know full well what he was ‘choosing’. He couldn’t live with the guilt–he’d tried how many times now? Wasn’t that the third time they’d brought him out?

        I remember feeling conflicted about the Kingley’s character during the movie, because he seemed so sincere about his wanting to help the patients, and yet, until the end, he was made to be creepy, or the bad guy. I was liking him before I knew who he really was! Which, thinking back is an incredible feat of acting! Of course Kingley has always been a great actor–far underused in my opinion!

  5. Matthew Gramith permalink
    March 14, 2010 10:32 pm

    *Spoiler Alert!*

    Just saw it – really enjoyed it. While I was engrossed in the story ’til almost the very end, DiCaprio’s delivery of that final line coupled with the choice to show Ruffalo’s reaction seems to me to reveal an intention for that scene to pitch itself beyond just the story and into the realm of theme. That line has given me A LOT to think about. And what about the final shot? It it the place that the institutional created illusion has taught us to fear, because it is of the mind (the place where the brain is worked on), but which is in reality,ultimately the source of light/truth…or is it the ultimate phallic symbol, reminding us or the origins of violence and our propensity to tame it. Either way, I think Scorsese is once again making a statement about the institutions which control us – religion, government, etc. This time, he is reminding us that we are co-creators (or co-conspirators against our most real selves) in our false but comfortable narratives. We choose. Sadly, we all too often sacrifice reality just for a good role!

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