SHUTTER ISLAND Review [Warning, Spoilery Talk Follows the First Paragraph]

Posted by Peter Hall - February 19th 2010 @ 7:00 am

Directed by Martin Scorsese, 2010
Written by Laeta Kalogridis


If you’re already planning on seeing SHUTTER ISLAND this weekend, don’t read beyond.  If you’re on the fence on seeing what it looks like when Martin Scorsese makes a horror movie, know that it is absolutely worth seeing, but do not read any further.  It’s impossible for me to talk about it without treading on subjects best left unexplored until you’ve seen the film.  So please, only read on if you’ve either already read the book, seen the film, or just don’t care about implied spoilers and are trying to waste time reading this at work (if that’s the case, just take off and go see the thing already).

This isn’t so much a review as it is a discussion of the film watching process.  You’ve been warned.

SHUTTER ISLAND is maddeningly brilliant and the maddening part isn’t the film’s fault at all.  We as viewers have grown accustomed to a certain breed of film from Hollywood whenever the words “psychological thriller” can be appended to a film’s description.  Anyone who watches even a normal amount of movies and is over the age of, say, 16, should have a sixth sense for plot twists by now and can become bored when a film’s big revelation is as painfully clear as it is slow to arrive.  When a film focuses on a Federal Marshall (Leonardo DiCaprio) sent to investigate the inexplicable disappearance of a patient at a mental institution for the criminally insane and the increasingly (and rapidly) bizarre behavior and hallucinations that surround him, you begin to concoct a certain conclusion in the back of your brain.

As the Marshall’s investigation begins to waver even further under mysterious influence it becomes abundantly clear what direction the film is taking.  Normally this would be fine, but such telegraphing becomes undeniable around the 45 minute mark.  In fact, the film’s end game becomes so clear at this point, that I was ready to mentally check out of the film.  Then Laeta Kalogridis‘ screenplay (adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novel) introduces a hypothetical that completely rejuvenates the film.  It hits like a cold shower, jolting the viewer back into the intrigue of the Marshall’s undertaking.  But unfortunately this awakening doesn’t last long and the film falls back in line with its telegraphed agenda.

What’s so maddening about that is that what’s being telegraphed is indeed brilliant.  The last twenty or so minutes of SHUTTER ISLAND aren’t just masterful, they’re downright immaculate.  The fact that you saw the revelation is rendered inconsequential by the tragic beauty of it all.  You’ll want to take the trip back to Shutter Island again.  You’ll want to play detective along with DiCaprio all over again.  You’ll want to be ushered through the haunting corridors of the Ashcliffe insane asylum by Robert Richardson’s hypnotic cinematography and Robbie Robertson’s nerve jangling score (which was not actually written originally for the film, but is an assemblage of classical pieces into a sort of Frankenstein score that takes on a dark beauty all its own).

No matter how triumphant the ending is, however, I can’t forget that I began checking my watch a third of the way through.  And that sucks.  It really does.  Instead of falling head over heels for SHUTTER ISLAND, as I’m quite sure I will with subsequent viewings, I’m always going to have that caveat; that part of me that remembers how annoyed I was that the film was beyond predictable an hour into it.  Not to mention how stung I was that the diversion it takes midway through (which would have made for an equally fascinating and even more disturbing outcome) ended up being a red herring.

And again, it’s not the movie’s fault, it’s just how I’m, unfortunately, wired to watch movies these days.  I lose interest in a film when I begin to think the filmmaker thinks I’m an idiot.  When it comes to SHUTTER ISLAND, though, I am an idiot.  I’m the chump that assumed that Kalogridis script, which is quite genius in retrospect, and Scorsese’s guidance of it were trying to be coy and failing when the truth is the reality is corrupted on so many different levels in the mind’s eye of SHUTTER ISLAND that I refused to accept it; I stayed vigilante (and thus ignorant) in my pursuit to figure it all out.  I, like DiCaprio’s character, lacked the perspective to see how truly organic it all is.

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rss 21 comments
  1. February 19th, 2010 | 10:00 am | #1

    I’m a little bummed to hear this. Like many people, I’m fairly sure I guessed the ending from the trailer. Had some conversations with people leading up to it and there were, ultimately, two camps: one saying the ending was obvious, and the other saying the ending was so obvious that Scorsese wouldn’t allow it to be the ending. I guess group one was right.

    Still, I suppose I’ll see it for the execution. I’m sure it’ll be lovely. But yeah, I can’t really stay fully engaged in something I’m an hour ahead of.

    By the by, it’s not just you that’s wired this way; moviegoing audiences in general these days are way too active in trying to guess plot twists. I don’t blame anyone for it, however, and it was probably inevitable.

  2. Katy
    February 22nd, 2010 | 8:37 am | #2

    I have to say I disagree about the script. We just saw the movie this past weekend – I have been waiting over a year after reading the blindingly brilliant novel – and I was completely on the fence about it.

    The acting is terrific, and the movie is beautiful to watch, but I was really put off by the blatant “See? See? Look what I’m doing here! Did you catch that? It’s a trick!” Aside from a character actually TELLING DiCaprio that’s “it’s a game” there were unnecessary things like this: during the patient interviews, the woman who asks for a glass of water holds her empty hand to her mouth and sets down an empty glass of water. Anyone paying attention would have seen that, and the game is over at that point. There was no subtle Sixth Sense-esque moments that you only realized fully later on – or on a 2nd viewing – they were all very heavy-handed.

    The novel kept the huge reveal until the end, and it was gigantic and breathtaking. Lehane kept you so invested in the mystery of Rachel Solando that you were interested in Teddy’s past but it wasn’t the focus, and you actually believed the island staff were somehow trying to drive him nuts to keep him from leaving. There were more “clues” left by Rachel around the island than just the note found in her room that kept me turning pages until the wee hours of the morning when the sand in my eyes forced me to put the book down – that just didn’t happen in the movie; there was nothing gripping me to my seat. A couple people actually got up to go to the restroom – that just doesn’t happen if you’re riveted; you hold it.

    I will watch it again on DVD – it was a good movie – I just think it would have been a BRILLIANT movie with a better screenplay.

  3. John
    February 22nd, 2010 | 11:20 am | #3

    The predictability angle definitely hurt the movie, red herrings or otherwise. But it’d be so easy to dismiss the whole thing on that basis alone (and Peter, I think you do a great job of fleshing out how and why that’s not really the film’s fault).

    There’s so much more to it than just the story. At various times, I found myself thinking of Kurosawa (the use of rain as a visual cue), certainly Hitchcock, and even Bergman. In fact, without any way of knowing for sure, I’d say that this film was influenced heavily by Bergman’s “Hour of the Wolf”. The director is using a character to speak directly to the audience; using that character to display the director’s own splintered personality in a world of madness; using a desolate, rocky island to enhance the insanity and the isolation. It even has Max von Sydow.

    The knock on Scorsese, right or wrong, is always that his films are exercises in male-driven violence fantasies. Teddy Daniels/Andrew Laeddis is “a violent man”, a phrase repeated multiple times. But, as Scorsese seems to be telling us, it’s not always that simple. Scorsese in reality and Scorsese the film director can show you very different things, and what he shows you on film is not the real Scorsese.

    These are the type of things that make the film worthy of a deeper analysis than just casually dismissing it due to the predictable plot.

  4. Matt J.
    February 22nd, 2010 | 1:26 pm | #4

    For folks that are Scorsese fans the predicabilty will not be a big factor, I licked the film even though I figured it out 1 hour into it. Was it Scorsese best…not even close (The King of Comedy and Good Fellas still my favorties)but I could enjoy it for all the Scorsese touches. For those that are just going to see a movie or because they are Leo fans I think it will be split down the middle.

  5. Brian K.
    February 22nd, 2010 | 2:13 pm | #5

    SPOILERS

    I haven’t looked into this elsewhere, but did anybody else notice a couple times when something Leo’s character thought was there (and was first shown by the camera) wasn’t there in the next shot. I noticed this twice: once when Leo was smoking a cigarette shortly after they arrive on the island, and another time when the “saner” crazy lady is drinking the glass of water. There were quick cuts where neither the cigarette nor the glass were there, just the actors making the motions.

    I’m not sure if there was a larger purpose to this other than subconsciously alerting the viewer that something was amiss, but it was a neat effect, regardless.

  6. February 22nd, 2010 | 2:17 pm | #6

    Yeah, Brian, I noticed them as well (Katy also mentioned them above). In addition to that, the water and pills he takes (which are served in medicinal dosage cups) when he first starts to get his headaches appear and disappear as well.

    The biggest thing for me, however, was the band-aid on his forehead. The way it absolutely refused to lose its adhesive despite running around in a hurricane was driving me insane before the revelation.

  7. Brian K.
    February 22nd, 2010 | 2:39 pm | #7

    Oops, totally missed Katy’s comment.

    Confession: I didn’t figure out the twist early. Maybe that’s b/c I wasn’t trying.

  8. February 22nd, 2010 | 7:36 pm | #8

    Glad I’m not the only one hung up on the band-aid.

    That seemed like a much different review for you Peter. You seemed to focus on your enjoyment of it all and the reason behind it rather than, how the movie was and why (or why not) it was good. I’m not complaining, just observing.

    What drove me nuts (in the both times I’ve seen it) was the score when they arrived at the island. It was just deafening. I understood it was gloomy and depressing, that was the tone of the whole thing. I didn’t quite get why they did that.

  9. Shelby
    February 25th, 2010 | 8:47 pm | #9

    OMGosh. So funny, I couldn’t agree more about the band aid or the score at the beginning of the movie. I thought this movie was well done and Leo did and the rest of the actors did amazing jobs. I can’t wait to see it again.

  10. Michelle
    February 26th, 2010 | 5:22 pm | #10

    can someone explain the band aid thing to me? why was it there…. if its obvious, forgive me, i am an idiot

  11. Colin
    February 28th, 2010 | 11:17 am | #11

    SPOILERS

    I was really really hoping that at the very end it would turn out that the island really was evil and he’d fallen into their trap, even if it was just subtly hinted at, but I ended up loving his choice to get the lobotomy.
    Didn’t see that coming, at least.

  12. pae
    February 28th, 2010 | 2:53 pm | #12

    I think the beauty of the entire movie is you don’t know how to feel and you don’t know which to believe. You are very much in the mind of Leo’s character. Paranoid and stuck between two different things that both could very much be true. I called it very early on. The fact that it didn’t show him anywhere else but the Ferry and the Island. He has experienced Trauma. The Doctor said he does experimental procedures. Patients seemed coached. Just met his partner. And there wasn’t much to the movie unless he was crazy. Frankly, practically from the beginning I just felt that’s the only way it could have been.

  13. dave
    March 1st, 2010 | 5:15 am | #13

    This was a great film! I’m 19, and honestly I have never been even remotely given the creeps by any film! Until now, the insanity of this movie is enough to drive the viewer insane. As for the ending I think Scorsese made it the viewers decision as to what his motive was for ending the mental torture of the island by getting the lobotomy. The ending is in my opinion reminds me of how QT ended reservoir dogs leaving the viewer asking themselves in Mr. Link got away with the bag. Also him accepting the laboring was reminiscent of the boy from the outside world who hangs himself at the end of the novel brave new world. Absolutely loved this film!

  14. Matt J.
    March 2nd, 2010 | 4:34 pm | #14

    He did’nt “choose” the lobotomy folks…he was never going to get better. Thats what was so sad about.

  15. John
    March 3rd, 2010 | 5:13 pm | #15

    I could see it either way, but I think he did choose the lobotomy. Otherwise, why include the line at the end- “Is it better to live a monster or die a hero?”

    To me, that was a clear implication that it was a rational process that he’d made, to hold onto his Teddy Daniels persona. If that wasn’t the case, I see no reason for that line to be in the movie.

  16. fred
    March 7th, 2010 | 5:31 pm | #16

    Yes John, he chose the lobotomy as an alternative to living with feeling he was a monster. That was the reason for the throw away line. I think a lot of people missed that and felt he genuinly had fallen back into his delusion rather than the pretense he was creating.
    I felt that the film did a pretty fair job of holding forth other possibilities as to what was going on. It hinted at him being dead and also of being a victim of brain experimentation that had left him a violent escaped killer. Kudos to the casting of Von Sydow and Kingsley, as well as the rest of the cast.

  17. Michael
    March 16th, 2010 | 2:41 pm | #17

    “introduces a hypothetical that completely rejuvenates the film. It hits like a cold shower, jolting the viewer back into the intrigue of the Marshall’s undertaking.”

    I’ve seen the movie, and have no idea what this refers to. I really didn’t like it, and thought it was an obvious, disappointing snoozefest from start to finish. But I’d really like to know what this hypothetical is.

    Anyone?

  18. March 17th, 2010 | 3:35 am | #18

    Michael, the hypothetical I was talking about was a reference to Teddy’s conversation with Rachel when he’s in the cave and what she tells him is going on on the island.

  19. jim
    August 5th, 2010 | 2:48 pm | #19

    Well to be honest I figured out Rachel was his lover very early, but the part that I liked the best about this movie is that this was not the main mystery; Scoresese led me on to believe that I had the problem solved and then he threw a twist and showed that yeah maybe I was right but that was not all there was to it…The final line by Dicaprio is genius and in the end it made the movie 100 times better for me anyway.

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  21. eiii...
    July 18th, 2011 | 10:36 pm | #21

    Di Caprio’s first persona is in fact the real one. When he was talking to Chuck or the Doctor at the last part of the film, he asked him if it was better to live a monster or die a hero. When Dicaprio stood up and walked down the stairs, the Doctor (Chuck) called him “Teddy”. After the scene when he introduced himself as his doctor, never in their conversation did he call him “Teddy”. Instead, he called him Andrew, the name they want to instill in his mind. Furthermore, the name “Teddy” is even the last word uttered in the movie. Therefore, Teddy is telling Chuck to do the heroic thing, take the risk and expose the misdeeds inside the asylum for he chose to die as a hero than live as a monster.

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