Shutter Island reviewed

Shutter Island is the new period-set psychological thriller from celebrated filmmaker Martin Scorsese. The film is something of a departure for the director, who is typically associated with gritty, contemporary crime dramas; not a genre that is considered to be quite lowbrow and popularist, stuffed as it is with straight-to-DVD entries. In all honesty, Scorses’s distinctive cinematic touches seem to be absent from Shutter Island, which definitely feels like his most commercial film since 1991’s Cape Fear. However, as a recent example of an auteur experimenting with genre conventions, Shutter Island is more gratifying than Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which, although different in what it is attempting, is similarly hit-and-miss.

Based on the bestselling novel by Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island is set in 1954 and centres on a highly agitated US marshall, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), who, along with his reticent new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), is summoned to a unique mental institution set on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Ashecliff Hospital is a treatment facility for the criminally insane, and one of the patients, delusional child murderer Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), has mysteriously escaped from her high security cell. As Teddy investigates, other more sinister activities at Ashecliff come to light, along with the truth behind Teddy accepting the case in the first place.

Although it’s clearly intentional, as Shutter Island progresses it becomes thematically denser, with certain mysteries being substituted for others, and revelations veering Teddy’s investigation off in unexpected directions. Murder. Revenge. Mind control. Madness. Conspiracy. They’re all thrown at the audience in the course of Shutter Island’s 138-minute running time. However, as none of these plot points are ever really developed, and very often spring out of nowhere, it’s obvious that they’re present to make Shutter Island appear more complicated than it really is. And for an alert, non-ADHD viewer this can be frustrating – you want the film to get to the point instead of wandering haphazardly like Teddy on the island.

Of course, this meandering does have its purpose. It provides multiple opportunities to get inside Teddy’s tormented mind as a widower, former alcoholic and US soldier first on site at Dachau Concentration Camp. The nightmare sequences that Scorsese presents are beautiful and haunting, while at all times retaining the typical weird tone and content of dreams.

The film’s distracted approach to mystery solving also means that certain action or revelatory scenes in the film are heightened in terms of their emotional impact. The 15 or so minutes that Teddy is inside Ward C – the dilapidated Civil War fort that houses the most dangerous inmates – are definitely the highlight of the film; exciting and simultaneously unnerving.

Performances in Shutter Island are particularly strong, even if most of the cast has very little screen time in comparison to DiCaprio. Scorses’s current favourite leading man of course dominates as the increasingly frenzied and paranoid Teddy. However, Watchmen’s Jackie Earle Haley also impresses, playing yet another despondent madman, and Michelle Williams looks to be having fun as Teddy’s dead wife. Shutter Island is not a film without laughs, although these tension-relieving moments are normally as a result of disturbing statements by unpredictable patients.

Shutter Island, in keeping with the psychological thriller-mystery genre, does ultimately provide an explanation about what is going on, with a twist of course. In this regard, the film feels akin to something like The Others, where, with the revelation of one key piece of information, all the inexplicable strangeness that has occurred onscreen before that moment suddenly makes sense. At the same time though, and what is most gratifying about Shutter Island, the revelation doesn’t tie up the ending of the film in a neat little bow. Enough ambiguity remains so that the audience is left pondering even as the end credits roll. It is this ambiguity, along with a handful of striking sequences, which redeems the film from being just a pretty but otherwise mostly tedious experience. As it stands, Shutter Island is decently thoughtful cinema, worth at least one viewing.


Marc Forrest said…
Very cool review. Thanks.
Watched this last night. Very disturbing movie that leaves you thinking at the end. Very cool movie none the less :)
Pfangirl said…
Hey Marc, thanks for commenting. I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed the film AND my review:)
Terrance said…
I finally got around to watching this today and while I loved the setting and initial story it dragged on for too long and I wasn't too surprised at the revelation towards the end of the film.
Pfangirl said…
Hey Terrance, I agree completely with everything you've said. The movie could have been a lot tighter and condensed because the audience had a very good idea of the revelation from early on.

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