For my first official review, I wanted to do a film that most people enjoy but often forget about until it’s brought up and then you go “Oh yeah! I loved that film!”. “Shutter Island” perhaps most perfectly encapsulates that very feeling.
Director Martin Scorsese has built a reputation over many decades of work as one of the most prestigious filmmakers in Hollywood, but this film is an oddity for him, not because of a drop-off in quality, but the content stands out dramatically when you compare it with his other work. His filmography has an abundance of gangster films, Robert DeNiro, and Joe Pesci. “Shutter Island” is not like any of those. “Shutter Island” is a mystery thriller, with a nice splash of horror mixed in for good measure.
The film stars Scorsese’s new golden boy and DeNiro’s spiritual successor, Leonardo DiCaprio, as US Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels, alongside Mark Ruffalo’s Marshal Chuck Aule, both sporting some strong Bostonian accents and over-the-top pre-cancerous cigarette addictions, both of which I am here for. The two marshals are brought to Shutter Island, which hosts a mental hospital for the criminally insane run by Ben Kingsley’s Dr. Cawley, because one of the patients has escaped. On the island, however, the marshals discover a greater conspiracy than they were brought there for.
“Shutter Island” is an exceptionally tense experience from the very beginning when Marshal Daniels is vomiting from seasickness. At no point does the viewer have the opportunity to relax because it is clear that things are not what they seem. You are as on your guard as the marshals are. This is exacerbated by the brilliant technical aspects of the film. The score is haunting, ominous, and powerful. The use of lighting to convey the stress and physical pain was brilliant. There is one scene in particular, where Marshal Daniels is suffering from a migraine, and the lighting used is so piercing that it almost hurts the viewer. But you’ll be damned if you aren’t craving relief from the intense pain just the same as the marshal. Furthermore, the lighting is of the utmost importance as it is a great tell for how in the dark he is to what is really going on around him.
Similarly, the sound editing process that the film underwent does more than just add intensity, it adds to mystery. There are key moments of the film where dialogue is not totally clear, but clear enough that the brain fills in the gaps to what we think they said. And the constructed dialogue makes sense, only to be later revealed that we all missed one key word that totally changed the meaning of what was said. It is a brilliant trick.
Like with any great mystery film, this film relies on a twist ending that the viewer is not supposed to see coming. In some cases, an ending such as this can be considered a novelty that only really has an impact upon the first viewing, and while it is true you will never truly be able to recreate the sense of unknown in subsequent viewings, “Shutter Island” does offer reasons to watch it multiple times. If a mystery has been done correctly, subtle hints should have been sprinkled throughout the film prior to the reveal. Most of these hints had no significance to the viewer before they knew what it was they were hinting at, but it is only with subsequent viewings that we can all truly appreciate how intricately the seeds of mystery were woven into the story.
It may come as no surprise that the acting in the film is exceptional. DiCaprio, who won a Best Actor Oscar in 2016, is one of the finest actors of any generation, so complimenting his work is fairly commonplace. What makes this performance standout amongst his other work is just how much this film relied on him. In most films, there are scenes that do not involve the main character, often for exposition or to reveal something the viewers. But not “Shutter Island”. In the roughly 2 hours and 18 minutes runtime, he is onscreen for virtually all of it. With the exception of a few landscape shots and opposing conversational camera angles, Leo never leaves the view of the camera. It may not seem like that big of a deal but I challenge you to find any film that relies that heavily on the presence of its lead. The story focuses so intently on who Teddy Daniels is as a person and it takes a special performance to portray paranoia, confidence, aggression, and intelligence all in one.
Mark Ruffalo does a great job as well, albeit his burden not quite the same as Leo. Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow both play their roles with exceptional tact, portraying doctors with both noble intentions and possibly sinister undertones. Their European accents certainly help in that department as well.
The film is not flawless however. In the latter part of the film, I couldn’t help but be aware of the very obvious greenscreen use. Perhaps this is where the use of lighting actually hurts the film. DiCaprio and Ruffalo are standing on some cliffs and even to the untrained eye, you can see that the actors were most certainly not outside. I would give it a pass, possibly since the effects could have been convincing for the time, but this film is only 9 years old at the time of me writing this. CGI and green screen usage were not foreign concepts in 2010. Ultimately, it is not a huge deal and does not ruin the film, but it is a noticeable flaw. Also, there are a few parts of the story that upon careful review do not make logical sense. Specifically, why would the overseers allow for the events of the film to take place during a hurricane. It makes for a more dramatic and stressful story, but it seems unreasonable when you stop to think about it. But I know I am just nitpicking.
“Shutter Island” through its narrative discusses themes of acceptable violence, acceptance of reality, and the morality of certain psychological treatments. There is a running comparison made throughout the film of the Nazis in WWII. Marshal Daniels was part of the liberating force of the Dachau concentration camps and he is fearful that the actions of the Nazis could be replicated. Also, harboring the burden of his own lethal actions during the war, the marshal questions the morality of these criminally insane patients, the use of lethal force, and the ability to accept responsibility for your actions.
This is a film that I fear gets forgotten amongst its peers because it doesn’t quite fit in. It is a very competently created film with a lot to offer any viewer, whether they are just looking for an entertaining thriller, or wish to examine a technically sound film.
I would rate this film a solid 8.8 out of 10.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams
Runtime: 2 Hours 18 Min