October 17, 2013

Shutter Island (2010)

Since Shutter Island is very twisty, for lack of a better word, there will be spoilers ahead. Since I would prefer readers who haven't seen the film (or read the book) enjoy the film before being spoiled, I am actually putting this warning here.


Shutter Island is really worth viewing ... unless you've read the book. I am a true component of reading books before seeing films mainly because it is an added bonus to watching movies. Novels benefit from our own point of view and films of novels suffer from differing opinions due to this truly unique experience of personal observation.

In the end, film is tangible and concrete and the vision displayed in a film is there for good. The personal perspective is of only a small group of people displayed to millions. In a lot of cases, we learn to live with it because often the perspectives are close enough to pass. But also, some adapted films take liberties or move in different directions for the sake of film storytelling and it ends up being, in some cases, a faithful but divergent experience.

Shutter Island is actually so faithful to the source material (almost word for word with only a few scenes extending, if only for an extra minute, that which is explained in the book briefly) that it is impossible to truly enjoy the film on a storytelling level if the book has been read, at least upon initial viewing. I read Shutter Island before watching the film and because of that I lost the ability to enjoy the film for all it is at least where the twists are concerned.

This does not take away the fact that the film is pretty much perfect. For one, Martin Scorsese, the director of this film, makes this a visual treat. I'm not a Scorsese aficionado nor am I a huge Scorsese fan (for reasons I'll explain later) but it seems like the legendary director has made an extra effort to make the film visually stimulating (whereas I've always found him more gritty and less concerned with flash). The man has always shot beautiful looking films that are constructed like paintings. But whereas I feel his other films seem like workmanlike blue-collar paintings (save something like The Age of Innocence or his Boardwalk Empire episode), Shutter Island is obliging the more surreal arty side. If the film's credits didn't say Martin Scorsese you could have sworn this was the visual work of Ridley Scott.

The film is layered with a sense of nature: water, ashes, fire, snow and wind are all major themes and they are displayed beautifully, if not hauntingly. And the way Scorsese relates these real life elements to a very realistic dreamworld makes the film's story seem like nothing more than a elaborate stage play of some one's imagination. Oh, yeah, it is by the way ...

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The basic story goes as follows: Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a post-WWII vet (the film is set in 1954) Federal Marshal tasked with finding a missing 'patient' (he prefers to call them prisoners) named Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer) who escapes the mental institution called Ashecliffe located on the rocky and intimidating Shutter Island, a small island off the shores of Boston.

A number of factors make Teddy's investigation difficult: a new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), a raging hurricane made worse by the island's location, the seemingly willful appearance that the hospital staff is subverting the investigation (as well as their possible culpability in Solando's disappearance), and a patient off the grid that murdered Teddy's wife, Delores (Michelle Williams).

Considering Teddy is made ill by the sight of water (and now he is surrounded by it) and suffers from debilitating headaches, this is not exactly the cushy assignment his partner Chuck is expecting. Throw in possible Nazi-sympathizers and government sponsored experimentation to fight Russians and well ... it all sounds crazy doesn't it? The fact of the matter, and the book gives this away if you read it first, is that it actually all is. But despite my spoiler warnings above, I won't go into too much detail.

Besides the visual flourishes that bring this never-ending nightmare (or, at its least, fever dream), Shutter Island is boosted by some of the best acting of the stars careers. I went on and on about how amazing DiCaprio was in J. Edgar but I might have jumped the gun in declaring it his best performance. To me, DiCaprio had, for a time, always suffered from hitting a glass ceiling with his acting. And for awhile in the early naughts I felt he was become almost typecast as the furious, screaming hero (his performances in Body of Lies and The Departed, for instance, are virtually indecipherable). And while he has always been good, I never found him great ... until recently.

Shutter Island and J. Edgar together might be the testament to how wonderful of an actor this man is. Shutter Island starts you off in an uncomfortable situation and as things unravel, DiCaprio unravels as well. I have to hand it to DiCaprio and the continuity supervisor on this film: Teddy's slow mental degradation never misses a beat. By film's end, Teddy's desperation and near collapse is so mesmerizing to watch that you can't help but be moved by the performance.

But immense credit goes to my favorite actress Michelle Williams for infusing both pathos and soul-blackening menace into what could have been a thankless role as Delores, a character who only appears in dreams or flashbacks. Williams, who besides being my favorite actress is also a stunning beauty, makes you feel desire and fear sometimes in the same thought and makes Teddy's conflicted emotions, especially at the end, seem valid.

Emily Mortimer also has a small role but is rather haunting as Rachel Solando (or is she?!) while Mark Ruffalo (never bad), Jackie Earle Haley (never bad), Patricia Clarkson (never bad), Elias Koteas (never bad), and Ben Kingsley (sometimes bad in bad movies) are A+ support. The icing on the cake is delivered by two wonderful, and sometimes underrated actors: Max Von Sydow makes an appearance as a potential German menace (remember, this is 1954) and is breathtakingly brilliant in a small role while the reliable Ted Levine makes a frightening appearance as the institution's warden. All in all, the film is an acting tour de force only made better by how real and unflashy it is. With other actors, this world would not be possible.

I mentioned before that I am not a huge Scorsese fan. The reasons are for storytelling reasons. I think Scorsese films are always poorly edited, usually going overlong and straying too long on unimportant moments while ignoring very relevant ones. Shutter Island indulges in this problem again and is about 10-15 minutes too long. But with the exception of a prolonged (and admittedly brilliant) sequence in which Allied Forces annihilate a Nazi concentration camp staff (only explained in the book in passing), Scorsese keeps the excessive violence down (another problem I have with his films; sometimes he goes a bit overboard to the point where I think it's exploitation) and avoids, thankfully, cheap jump scares (not a problem he has had before but something I hate about 'thrillers' as they are cheap thrills, not lasting ones). Lastly, his excessive detail, which I felt hindered films like The Aviator by taking away from the point, is held in check here. The costumes and set design are brilliant but don't bring attention to themselves like in previous productions.

All in all, Shutter Island, despite having the main plot spoiled by reading the book first, is a near-masterpiece and one I'd recommend to pretty much anyone. It is what makes movie making so fun: enticing visuals, grade-A acting, good story, nice twists and just plain old entertainment.


  1. After THE DEPARTED, this restored my faith in Scorsese. Fine look at it, Will.

  2. Really enjoyed this film. My wife read the book first, and still liked the film (which usually doesn't happen). The only element I didn't like was some of the music. The piece used when they first approach the compound was SO over the top it actually made me laugh. Not the reaction I think Scorcese was going for.


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