Film Review - Shutter Island

Scorcese's newest film Shutter Island reminded me a lot of The Shining . In the opening scene two policemen are on a ferry headed towards an island that serves as an insane asylum for the most deranged psychopaths in the United States. The sky is heavy and gray and as the camera pans in towards the dark, ominous island a pounding, intense soundtrack makes it very clear that bad things happen there.

Actually, the entire film seems like a giant homage to The Shining. Without giving too much away, it's all about a descent into madness, which is evident both by the actions and delusions of the characters and also in the gothic imagery. Instead of a snowstorm, the characters in Shutter Island are trapped by a hurricane and the physical barrier of the ocean and the old fort, which houses the psychiatric patients. The frequent dreams about dead children and Teddy's (played by Leonardo Dicaprio) dead wife are beautiful and disturbing and are reminiscent of the little girls that haunt the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick's film.

Strange things begin to happen almost immediately and the audience isn't really sure who is telling this story, whose perspective we are getting. As a result we aren't sure what, or who to believe and as the film crashes towards its climax, we are feeling just as paranoid and crazy as most of the characters. Who do we trust and how the hell are we going to get off this island?

While watching the film, I found myself frustrated with the plot - certain things didn't make sense and even as I've tried to unravel them, they still don't add up. But I think that is part of the point - in Shutter Island plot isn't always linear, characters are flawed and conflicted (and we are conflicted watching them) and lots of things don't make sense. There is nothing neat about this film, it is messy and fragmented and even at the end, when the truth is revealed, we still aren't totally convinced that it's true. Or maybe it's that we don't want to believe it. As things begin to unravel, the audience is drawn into making crazy assumptions and at the end, we are as culpable as the lunatics who are locked up. 

The trailers for Shutter Island may actually do it a disservice. They present the film like a straight forward thriller - something scary and fast paced. Although the film does have jumpy moments, it is much too subtle to really appeal to people who are just looking for an easy scare and I suspect the result will be that many people won't enjoy it. It builds slowly and there is no satisfying resolution at the end.

But even those who don't like the plot should enjoy the way it was shot. Not only does it look and feel like an old film noir, but there are some moments, mainly the dream sequences, that are among the most memorable I've ever seen. In one particular scene, a dreaming Teddy is visited by his dead wife who died in an apartment fire. Played by Michelle Williams, Dolores is glowing in a yellow dress and even though she consumes the screen with her presence, even Teddy knows she isn't real. Still, as he walks towards her, he notices that her back is missing and there is only a deep red ashy pit of embers in its place. Despite the horror of it, he embraces her as she simultaneously burns and turns to water before finally, he is left alone, clinging to ash. It's horrible and beautiful.

There is nothing simple about Shutter Island and it isn't a film that is easy to let go of once the credits roll. It's definitely a film that leaves its audience with more questions than answers, along with an indelible imprint of something strange and fleeting, like smoke.

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Unknown said...

I totally disagree with you. Although I had to see this movie the first time as an assignment for my psychology class, I went for the second time on my own. There are three separate and distinctive plots in this film and if you catch them early enough you will know what is going on. Even though I have seen the movie twice, I would still love to go back and see it again. I would like to state two things though; one, for anyone that is a psychology major, this is a wonderful learning mechanism even though it is fictional. Secondly, if you listen carefully to what Leo's final statement of the movie is, he is making his peace with what he his done and I will not give that away.

Amy said...

Hi Debra,

Thanks for your comment. What part of the review do you disagree with?

I know which line you are referring to at the end, and without giving too much away to the people who might be reading this (all three of you!) I think we probably interpreted it in the same way.

That said, I think the beauty of this film is that Scorcese has left a lot of room for the audience to draw their own conclusions. Whether looking at it through a psychology lens or women studies lens (I was a WS and Lit major in school) - he has crafted something that allows each of us to bring something of our crazy perspectives to our understanding of it.

But yes, I can see why it would be a particularly relevant film for psych majors. I am looking forward to seeing it again - I think it is one of the few films that would really become clearer with a second viewing.

I'd love to read more about what you think, so if you post a review, please link to it here.