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Movie Review: Shutter Island


Movie Review: Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese’s newest picture Shutter Island is a creepy cinematic passage into paranoia, guilt, and insanity—a classic thriller with undertones of gothic romance and the failed American dream. The trailers, which anyone who’s taken in a movie in the last year has seen, reveal little but hint at a lot. Fortunately, the movie is a great watch even if the conclusion may leave some audiences grumbling.

Movie Poster: Shutter Island
Shutter Island

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane

Teddy Daniels – Leonardo DiCaprio
Chuck Aule – Mark Ruffalo
Dr. Cawley – Ben Kingsley
Dr. Naehring – Max von Sydow
Dolores – Michelle Williams
Rachel 1 – Emily Mortimer
Rachel 2 – Patricia Clarkson
George Noyce – Jackie Earle Haley
Warden – Ted Levine

CLR [rating:4]

Movie Still: Shutter Island

Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) and Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) are two detectives sent from the mainland to investigate a mysterious disappearance on an island prison for the criminally insane.
[Photo credit: Andrew Cooper, Copyright © 2010 by Paramount Pictures.]

A Spooky, Nuanced Thriller That Plays Like a Forties Noir

Martin Scorsese’s newest picture Shutter Island is a creepy cinematic passage into paranoia, guilt, and insanity—a classic thriller with undertones of gothic romance and the failed American dream. The trailers, which anyone who’s taken in a movie in the last year has seen, reveal little but hint at a lot. Fortunately, the movie is a great watch even if the conclusion may leave some audiences grumbling. Its tone, script, cinematography, and acting are laudable at worst and pitch-perfect at best.

Dennis Lehane, who also wrote Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone, penned the novel on which Shutter Island is based. The book and film are set in 1954 in the Boston Harbor Islands, one of which houses the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. The movie opens on a ferry carrying Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, having a slightly different reaction to the open sea than he did in his “king of the world” days) and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to Ashecliffe to investigate the disappearance of a patient. As Teddy dives headfirst into the inquiry, twists, switchbacks, and surprises take him on a disturbing spiral into the human mind.

Director of photography Robert Richardson and extraordinary production designer Dante Ferretti fashioned a creepy, physical manifestation of the inner workings of the psyche—and the result is a film that makes you feel like you might be going a little nuts yourself as the layers unfold. The island is a foreboding and utterly spectacular landscape of jutting cliffs, black shale, and eerily stormy skies. The hospital itself is a set of beautiful red brick buildings that scream New England. Vivid green landscaping and lovingly pruned trees cradle them, creating an ominously safe haven in a forbidding setting. The film looks like a Lovecraftian nightmare with a touch of the haunted, gothic feel of Hitchcock’s Rebecca. It feels classically Old Hollywood; each shot, every scene, is choreographed perfectly, the subjects centered and lit beautifully. The composition of each frame is skillfully rendered (the storyboards are probably a sight to behold), and the editing is completely invisible. The script, adapted by Laeta Kalogridis, is stylish and gripping. Despite its length (two hours eighteen minutes), most viewers will be rapt throughout as the narrative unravels enigma upon mystery.

America was a strange place to live in the ‘50s, and Shutter Island’s Teddy is emblematic of the paranoia, fear, and guilt that plagued the American public. Although it’s a suspense thriller, the film is also a sort of history lesson, a journey into the bizarre world of the Red Scare, H-bomb anxiety, and the aftermath of World War II. From the way the guards treat Teddy, he says, “You’d think insanity was catchin’.” In a sense, in 1950s America it was. McCarthyism and the atom bomb were at the forefront of news, and Americans never knew what was coming next. The filmmakers rely on the tension of the period to provide a clever, nuanced narrative.

The movie boasts a cast full of A-listers: DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley, Patricia Clarkson, and Max von Sydow. Scorsese and DiCaprio, friends who have worked together four times, have a kind of symbiosis that allows each to do his best work. Michelle Williams, an Oscar nominee for Brokeback Mountain, is incredible in her role as Teddy’s wife Dolores, who appears to him mostly in nightmares and hallucinations. Williams imbues each of her scenes with a haunting vulnerability. The supremely underrated Patricia Clarkson (The Green Mile, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) plays a soothsayer residing in a cave, lending a mythological ambiance to the film. Von Sydow and Kingsley, both complete pros, are perfect in their respective roles.

Robbie Robertson, a Scorsese confidante and veteran of The Band, was charged with compiling already existing tracks into a suitable score. The result is heavy on thrumming violins, discordant horns, minor chords, and shuddering bass. Scorsese knows his movie music, and frankly it works here. The director’s affinity for Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Vertigo) is clear, and Robertson managed to use the same principles that make Herrmann’s music incredible to meld a series of classical pieces into an effectively spooky ensemble piece that elevates the movie without distracting.

Shutter Island was originally scheduled for release in October, and when it got pushed back to February, everyone wondered why a Scorsese movie would miss prime Oscar season. It’s certainly one of the year’s most heavily advertised movies, and from the full twenty minutes of trailers that play before the movie gets underway, one imagines studios jostling in the figurative line to get their trailers in the peak spots. It’ll undoubtedly be lucrative, and may see Oscar nominations next year. The coup de grace, which may not be a surprise to canny moviegoers (and may leave some disappointed), is fraught with enormously eerie imagery. At its heart, the movie is made with the classics in mind. It’s a brilliantly made and enjoyable film that owes a lot to its predecessors, and if not for its sense of homage it might have been cloying. If you go in expecting a great story told in the compelling fashion of films noir, you won’t be disappointed.

Shutter Island Trailer

Julia Rhodes graduated from Indiana University with a degree in Communication and Culture. She's always been passionate about movies and media, and is particularly fond of horror and feminist film theory, but has a soft spot for teen romances and black comedies. She also loves animals and vegetarian cooking; who says horror geeks aren't compassionate and gentle? Google+



  1. Ayesha

    July 26, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    This movie is what i’d call boring instead of thrilling; the scenes being monotonous and it’s inability to enmesh the viewer into watching it to the very end. It is certainly by far the least thrilling movies ‘dicaprio has starred in.

  2. Anne

    March 16, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    Leonardo DiCaprio is finally settling down into his Jack Nicholson 2.1 destiny.

  3. Ian

    February 20, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    The ending to No Country for Old Men left a lot of people mystified, as it didn’t seem to make any sense, or provide a conclusion to the film. I went back 2 more times and i reckon that I worked it out. It actually made perfect sense if you listen to the detail of TLJ’s dream, as he recounts it to us, and why he couldn’t catch the bandit. I thought that the good point of that movie was to encourage people to have some balls and back their judgement. Call it! The world moves fast now, and sometimes, waiting for help, or always needing your pappy ’round, means that you might miss an opportunity.

    I think the end to Shutter Island has a haunting effect. How often do I live like a creep and justify my actions in some small deluded way? Instead of walking out of the film feeling like “He got em!”, Scorsese turns things back on us as individuals. I applaud the guy. He took the hard approach to the ending, rather than the usual ‘kick em in the guts’ style that typifies 75% of H’wood mainstream productions.

  4. Matt

    February 20, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    I have a feeling that the big “problem” everyone will have with this – the ending, from what you say and what the previous comment said – is the big “problem” with the book. I didn’t hate the ending, but it’s definitely not something that is amazingly spectacular in any way. Audience expectation usually gets in the way of all kinds of stuff, though, particularly with big-name ‘thrillers’ of one sort or another (see NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN).

  5. Jim S

    February 20, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    This movie had all the expectation, hype and crafty skill necessary, except they left out the audience. From the beginning of the film the viewers aren’t treated with any respect as they are led down one path after another without a clue that it would end as it would…with a yawn. So, unless you’ve seen so few films that just about anything “well made” impresses you, go to this one with plenty of snacks and a suspended sense of importance, focusing not on yourself and the $30 you just spent, but towards the egotistical needs of the film maker who is more interested in making a statement than entertaining the average audience.

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