Shutter Island

Director: Martin Scorsese
USA, 2010, 138mins, rated 15
Screening: Notting Hill Coronet, 14 March 2010

Boston, 1954. Two US Marshals – Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) – emerge from the fog on a boat bound for Shutter Island: a maximum security offshore prison for the criminally insane. Dressed in classic film noir attire (hats, suits and long coats) and accompanied by ominous classical music, the tone is set for a dark and unsettling ride. After a decade of overly-contrived epics, Martin Scorsese’s back, relaxing from the need to bring us another magnum opus and sinking his teeth into a glorious homage to Hitchcock and Hollywood’s dark years. An intense psychological-suspense-thriller-mystery awash with fantastic twists and turns, Shutter Island feels at once like a new and assured direction for Scorsese, as well as something pleasantly familiar. It's very possibly his most direct and enjoyable film since Casino.

What elevates Shutter Island from the majority of Scorsese’s recent output is its tongue-in-cheek playfulness. While this kind of energy was rife in his earlier work and is what made those films so irresistible, it’s something that all but dried up in his work since the mid-nineties. Not that Shutter Island is light-hearted – it’s anything but: a dark and disturbing thriller that probes deep into the nature of sanity and violence – it’s just that Scorsese seems to be having real fun with the medium again, not just relying on his trademark techniques to enervate an otherwise lumpy story. He adapts Dennis Lehane’s gothic thriller with real glee, moulding the cinematic devices masterfully to manipulate the narrative and deliver an awesome spectacle in an almost pastiche style.

Our protagonists alight on Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of one of its prisoners: a woman who is said to have murdered her three children. However, with the prison’s head psychiatrist Dr. John Cawley (played with pitch perfect ambiguity by Ben Kingsley) being less than cooperative to their enquiries, a wealth of distinctly implausible facts behind the disappearance of the prisoner, and a strange encounter with the shadowy Dr. Jeremiah Naehring (played with wonderfully sinister menace by Max von Sydow) the pair soon realise that all is not what it seems on Shutter Island. Things are made worse by the classic horror device of an arriving storm that threatens to cut off the island from the mainland, and by the disturbing dreams from which DiCaprio’s character suffers, full of horrific memories of WWII and his dead wife.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo and Ben Kingsley

Set in the mid 1950s, when reforms in psychiatric practices following WWII were gaining recognition, Shutter Island positions itself in the era’s progressive treatment of mental illness. If there’s horror in the story, it’s in the paradox of mental health diagnosis and the thin line between sane and insane. As one character explains it: the moment you’re labelled insane, you become a prisoner of that diagnosis. Whatever you do or say from then on is merely regarded as part of your delusion – no matter how sane or insane it is – by your ‘carers’, those whose sanity puts them above you and in control of your destiny. Although Dr Crawley is insistent that the inmates of the island are patients and not prisoners, as the two US Marshals deepen their investigations they soon suspect that something much darker is going on behind the scenes.

To intensify the setting and themes in Shutter Island, Scorsese has created a gorgeously evocative 50s look for the film. Where 1991’s Cape Fear transposed the otherworldly malevolence of Laughton’s Night of The Hunter into 90s' America, with Shutter Island he filters us back to a lovingly realised recreation of 1950s' Hollywood. Being that it's Scorsese, mere homage is not enough, so his style of über-Hitchcock becomes almost pastiche in its passion and faithfulness. Really getting his money’s worth from acclaimed cinematographer Robert Richardson, Scorsese lavishes the eye on every last detail, from the over-the-top lighting, exquisite costumes, beautiful set design and expressionistic dream sequences. The whole movie is suffused with that classic VistaVision feel where both studio and location shots are given the same opulent but equally unreal quality that seems to merge reality with something dreamlike to create a uniquely cinematic form.

DiCaprio and Ruffalo get closer to the truth on Shutter Island

Critics have been dismissive of Shutter Island for its clichéd and derivative plot, but I believe this misses the point – its genius lies in its familiarity. By using the structured language of film noir and the well-trodden investigative mystery narrative, Scorsese invites us to look beyond plot and story and focus on the dark underbelly of 1950s' Cold War America. If the futility and frustration of the First World War begat the barbarism of the second, so fear of and exposure to that barbarism begat the insanity of the Cold War. As Von Sydow’s German doctor tells DiCaprio’s character: ‘Where there has been trauma there are wounds, and wounds can create monsters’. Americans may have returned from the liberation of Europe with victory in their hearts, but they also carried the unimaginable horrors of Omaha and Dachau seared into their minds, images that, left unchecked, quickly corroded into guilt and paranoia.

With Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese puts America in the psychiatrist’s chair and exhumes its violent ghosts. As a director whose work has been characterised by violence for much of his 40 year career, he is well placed to perform this treatment. With little support or understanding for the horrors they’d witnessed, American soldiers returned to their lives and took their wounds with them. Fear infiltrated the American psyche and as an age of paranoia was born, so the insanity of the Cold War took hold. Violence is a corrupting force, Shutter Island tells us, as well as a controlling one. Decades of suspicion and hostility followed as the wild-eyed and gibbering Cold War mindset bred such homeland lunacy as McCarthyism, the 60s' fears of communism and UFOs, the paranoia of Nixon’s 70s, the posturing of the Reagan years and the military-industrialism of the Bush dynasty. With no-one to check it, collective fear becomes delusional, violent and unstoppable. From there, it's not long before the lunatics take over the asylum.


  1. Brilliant review Will! I felt the film walked the line of pastiche and affection perfectly, but never let either overwhelm the gripping plot. Your point about VistaVision is so true, the aesthetic quality of those films were a strange and unique cinematic concoction and Shutter Island certainly evokes that.

  2. Couldn't agree more. A great, fun ride through familiar conventions which pay homage to Hitchcock and film noir in an intelligent and expert manner. The man is pure class and constructs a wonderful mood through costume, lighting, set design, location shooting, acting and music. Every element is thoughtfully implemented. It's a pulp thriller plot elevated by some fantastic stylistic touches.

    It's a shame it's about 20 minutes too long with an ending which explains the twist several times over just to ensure you *get* it, but the ride until then is great and every actor is superb.


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