Feb 24 2010

Shutter Island

Let’s just be clear from the start.  It’s not often these days that a film causes me to constantly think to myself, This is so awesome. But sitting in a darkened theater, watching Shutter Island, the latest from Martin Scorsese and Leonardo Di Caprio, that is exactly what I was thinking.  Martin Scorsese is a master of the medium, so this is certainly no surprise, but seldom has his work been this much fun.  Not only does this film pay homage to the greats of the thriller genre while fleshing itself as a full-fledged entry itself, but it’s also an example of some of the finest filmmaking execution I’ve seen in some time.

As always, I’ll stay brief with my synopsis.  Di Caprio plays Teddy Daniels, a federal marshal who, alongside his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) goes to an island to investigate the disappearance of a patient from a highly secure mental institution for the criminally insane.  And let the eerie events ensue. Scorsese takes this opportunity to really take the premise and shoot the film using techniques that might have been more commonly used fifty years ago, while still having a completely modern feel to the film.  What grabbed me about the film right from the beginning was the mood and tone of the film, set brilliantly by the score, which begins ominously with even the first logos and titles of the film.  Throughout the film from this point on, this amazing mix of tension, paranoia, and mystery wafts through the screen with amazing consistency.  Every scene carries something that makes you feel creepy and weird but is presented in a way that made me smile with its brilliance rather than become physically anxious.  The film even manages to take things that might otherwise hinder a film, and use them in favor of creating a feel for the scene and a reminder of films past.  When the film gets expositional, as it does often in the first act, it still feels like we’re being let in on an incredible secret every time we’re told something new.  This is partially due to the earnest attitude of all the actors involved, but even more credit goes to Scorsese for making these scenes feel interesting through the fluid use of his camera, and the direction.  Each example of overly expositional scenes feels like a call back to the way thrillers used to be made, but only the best, most prime examples.  In fact, when presented with various items of information or settings, I often was very aware that these were being set up for later use, but they were presented in such a way that made me excited with anticipation for their return.  I’ve heard Hitchcock’s name and the noir label thrown around a lot regarding this film, and both are apt, but neither alone or together do they fully capture how this movie feels.

Noir or Hitchcock, who gives a shit, it's beautiful.

The look of this film is simply incredible.  It’s dark and confining, and yet perfectly composed and displays a wide range of tones and colors.  Many of the scenes have a distinctly surreal look to them. One example is the back projected skyline behind a boat used in the first scene, another callback to Hitchcockian filmmaking, but redesigned with modern technology in a way that makes the technique feel real while simultaneously unsettling in its perfection.  The art direction and production of the film is simply gorgeous and extremely stylistic.  It does loads to contribute to the tone of the film, and it kept me glued to the screen.  The mental facility itself just looks haunted as soon as you see it, and that’s before you even get to explore the intriguing variety of the different wards, one of which has the air of a foreboding castle.  Several dream sequences also make use of modern technology while harkening back to an older style of storytelling.  And while I generally find dream sequences to get in the way of more organic forms of storytelling, Scorsese finds a way here to make them both integral and poetic without stepping over the line that would make them feel over-the-top or unnatural.

To say nothing is as it seems would be a contradiction, because it seems like nothing is as it seems.

It’s no spoiler to reiterate that this film takes place on an island, nor is it to reiterate the way that this traps the characters involved within a confined set of locations.  As the story progresses, unsurprisingly, more forces converge to keep them isolated from the world.  This type of setting has always appealed to me, there’s something about putting a character in a situation in which they have no escape and seeing how they act that really gets at the center of who they are.  Not only this, but it forces confrontations between them and the other characters in the story, and each of these interactions reveals even more about the characters involved, particularly since character is revealed primarily (and more subtly) through action.  Shutter Island does this excellently, to say the least, using it’s setting in overdrive.  Not only are there physical things to be afraid of here (cliffs, caves, insanely powerful storms), but the world as a whole also presents a constant paranoia for the characters involved.  Dynamics of the Cold War and the atom bomb hang over the proceedings, adding that extra pound of fear into their lives.

The characters that surround Di Caprio’s Teddy may seem archetypal on first glance, but each of them has some sort of twist on the traditional take that makes them feel unique.  The actors, all top-notch, flesh them out even with as little as a scene, making them feel like real presences while once again calling back to the types of characters who would inhabit a 50’s thriller or even a 30’s/40’s noir.  Mark Ruffalo is reliable as always, and Ben Kingsley uses his traditional combination of charm, authority, and slightly offsetting down-notes.  As with any story involving a mental institution there’s a variety of creepy patients, and some moments that are outright disturbing as well.  Many of the actors that appear in the film were a pleasant surprise to me, so I will refrain from mentioning them here, but suffice it to say that even the players with only one scene have powerful effects on the viewer and Di Caprio’s character.  Consistency of tone and quality between actors is a difficult thing to achieve, and I credit Scorsese’s considerable experience and talent with the fact that this works as a cohesive unit, especially because it is not striving for a naturalistic feel.

I was enthralled with this movie every second of its considerable running time.  It was a breeze to watch and simultaneously powerfully affecting as well.  Had it been released last year as planned, it would’ve been one of my favorites of the year.  As it is, it’s the best thing to be released so far this year, and will probably remain amongst the top films even as the calendar comes to a close.  If you like dramas, thrillers, mysteries, or suspense even a little, please go see this movie.  I may see it twice.  It’s at this point that my review ends in my mind.  But if you have seen the film, AND LET ME REPEAT, ONLY IF YOU’VE ALREADY SEEN THE FILM.  I do have a few more opinions I’d like to get across.


Don't read what's after this image if you haven't seen the film.

There was a point as I was watching this film that the ending felt disappointing to me.  As a whole it was going exactly where I expected it to, and where the entire duration of the film, I was hoping it would not go.  I was looking for something more creative and different, and not a reiteration of so many films involving mental illness.  Unfortunately, my prediction did come to pass.  But then something amazing happened.  Scorsese proved me wrong.  He took that ending of the film and did two things with it.  He created what may be the most powerful scene in the film, a slightly melodramatic but immensely affecting flashback scene, one that worked for me completely.  This thing is devastating, and while it indulges in a few cliché shots it’s so beautiful and well done that I didn’t care in the least.  The second thing that Scorsese (with great help from Di Caprio in this case) did was add a very intriguing coda to the film as Teddy has his final talk with the employees of the institution (on the steps).  This created a twist on the concept that was really interesting to me, felt different, and also perfectly true to all the characters involved.  It also had more than a few things to say thematically, pushing this movie out of the generic thriller zone.  And finally, despite originally desiring a different, more action-packed outcome, I cannot as a screenwriter figure out a way for this to work in a logical manner.  Despite everyone else’s foul cries, the ending works for me, and I’m disappointed to hear that the last twenty minutes of the film ruined some people’s experiences.  Scorsese’s created something both great and entertaining here, and I’m so glad I got to see this film.

12 Responses to “Shutter Island”

  • Mike Lukenbill Says:

    *spoilery comment!*

    That last flashback was really the only part of the movie that didn’t sit well with me. I felt like it was unnecessary and super melodramatic. At that point in the film, we’ve gone through Ted’s total breakdown, have been told what actually happened, and understand what that means for the character. I think having the audience imagine Ted’s wife, who’s been presented to us as a tragic sweetheart, in the role of the crazy mom (Rachel?), might have been more effective than having her say cliche crazy bitch stuff in a lengthy flashback.

    I still need to marinate with this movie, but I’m pretty sure I loved it. I think it’s a little ignorant for people to write off a twist as “pulling the rug out from under the audience,” especially when the character depth and storytelling of the film backs it up.

  • Mike Lukenbill Says:

    To add to my last comment-

    This wasn’t a Twilight Zone or R.L. Stein ending that totally undermines the characterization that dupes the audience. I think we’re a little disappointed when our suspicions end up being true because we’re used to movies, especially crime-psychological-thrillers trying to trick us.

  • James Goux Says:



    The ending doesn’t feel as though it was come up with after the fact, it relates to many things presented throughout the film, as you said.

    While I can easily see this being too much melodrama for someone (I was sure to use the word myself in my review), it was earned enough for me after the journey we’d taken (and let’s not forget this is a story of the CRIMINALLY INSANE), I’m not sure I understand what you’re suggesting as an alternative when you say “I think having the audience imagine Ted’s wife, who’s been presented to us as a tragic sweetheart, in the role of the crazy mom (Rachel?), might have been more effective than having her say cliche crazy bitch stuff in a lengthy flashback.”

  • Mike Lukenbill Says:

    What I mean is her character up until that point is how Ted perceives her. Using a flashback to show that she was actually a kook was all too obvious.

  • Melanie Says:

    Bummer couldn’t finish the article until I see the film. Tempting though but appreciate the spoiler warning.

  • Heather Navarro Says:

    The only problem I think I had with this film, (and please don’t get excited, because it isn’t much), is the drive into the asylum. The score was irritating me, because they weren’t even in the damn place yet, and the music was so suspenseful.
    Now that I read your review, I now understand why I was looking at the skyline in the first scene and thinking, “Hmmm…..there’s something awfully unsettling about that background.” I should have noticed it was the precursor Scorsese deliberately put there, rather than thinking it could possibly be the cheesy attributes of CGI.
    I loved the flashback at the end. I love the use of color. I subconsciously knew where the movie was going, as you did, and I think the whole time I was praying that “Teddy” was actually right, rather than Andrew.
    Unlike you, James, I was physically affected by this movie. But that’s not saying much, because I jolt in my seat while watching the cheesiest thrillers. I think “Shutter” is different though because of what I said to Fabian as we left the theater: “This movie makes me feel crazy.”
    What’s funny is I usually always find something that annoys me about Leo; like for instance, in “The Departed,” I couldn’t handle the accents. But I couldn’t find anything annoying with Teddy Daniels.
    And one last note: the correct spelling for marshal in this scenario is “mah-shal.”

  • Benn Hadland Says:

    You nailed this one on the head James. As usual, I agree.

  • James Goux Says:


    I love that helicopter shot of them driving towards the asylum, the music is really setting a beautiful ominous tone, and it ever so subtly sets up that someone is missing without saying it outright. You see the police searching through the fields and you know exactly what’s going on. I almost wish they didn’t mention a “missing patient” in the next scene and let you fill in the blanks on your own, but I suppose they had to be sure no viewers fell behind.

    I was physically affected during the scene with Jackie Earl Haley in ward C, I started to feel very disturbed. But for much of the film I was mostly in awe of the execution.

    Leo’s accent in this film did feel a little odd and comical at times, but for some reason I liked it anyway. And yes, I’ve been joking all week about being “dooly appoynted fedahrahl mahrshahls.”


    I can see the wife’s insanity being the obvious route, but for me, sometimes it’s better to maintain character logic than to jump out and try something fresh that doesn’t work. While I see your problem with the scene, I’m not sure I understand your solution. You want her to act normal?

  • James Goux Says:


    Don’t worry, I tried to make the article as complete as possible before that point.

  • James Goux Says:

    Just realized, this is the 100th published article on Lock, Stock, and Two Film Geeks. Nice!

  • Kris Says:

    wow, your review is written like someone writing a term paper. Could you use a few more adjectives?? I hope you bought Scorcese dinner before embarking on that love fest. How about some real critical thinking?

  • James Goux Says:


    It’s true that I indulged in a lot of hyperbole here. I don’t normally do so, but in this case, I really enjoyed the movie and found this to be the most accurate way of getting across how I felt about it. Thanks for reading, and your comments.

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