Shutter Island: a film review

Shutter Island just might be the best B-movie I’ve ever seen. It’s a potboiler, a pulp tale. That’s not a slam at Scorsese’s film. On the contrary, I suspect that’s exactly what he was aiming at with this lurid, overblown 1950s-set psychological thriller, and he manages to make it both wryly genre-savvy and completely thrilling — even to someone who knows its secrets.

shutter island

[The first half of this review is spoiler-free. I’ve placed a bolded note where spoilers begin below.]

The film opens with Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner (Mark Ruffalo) en route to Shutter Island, an isolated island asylum for the criminally insane, to investigate the seemingly impossible disappearance of a female patient. Head psychiatrist Dr. Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley) treats the scowling agents to a lecture on his philosophy of compassionate, comforting treatment for even the most dangerous patients. His claims of compassion notwithstanding, Dr. Cawley is an oddly ambiguous, potentially sinister character, with his big knowing eyes and his capriciously high-handed treatment of the marshals.

We know almost immediately that Daniels carries dreadful memories with him to the island: Teddy brusquely tells his new partner that his wife died in an apartment fire. As the film progresses, we learn, too, that Daniels, a WWII veteran, was a liberator of Dachau, and images from the camp haunt his sleep.

Some negative reviews have focused on the plotline, which seems to me to be missing the point. The beauty of Shutter Island is the storytelling, not the story. The almost perfunctory twists and turns of the plot are thrown into deep shadow by the long, lavish, genre-loving narrative process.

The very first exterior shot — the green-screen shot of Teddy and Chuck on the ferry with endless ocean in the background — establishes this film as a homage to the suspense tales of yesteryear. It’s a more technologically advanced version of the jumping, jarring backdrops Hitchcock used in his driving scenes — almost naturalistic, but not quite.

Throughout the film, Scorsese pays homage to sources higher and lower than Hitch, making Shutter Island a chaotic pastiche of influences, including classic psychiatric thrillers Spellbound and Vertigo, psychiatric melodramas like The Snake Pit, Cold War paranoia ranging from The Manchurian Candidate to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the rich tradition of modern horror from Samuel Fuller to David Lynch.

And “chaotic” is the word to take to heart here. Scorsese masterfully builds up a fractured, fragmented narrative, filling it with blinking inconsistencies that vanish before we can consciously view them. The whole film seethes with chaos and turmoil: an almost parodically craggy landscape, a storm that builds to a devastating climax, great wafts of smoke, the varied and vivid torments of the island’s inmates, lighting that goes waaaay past contrast and into chiarascuro, and a towering soundscape of a score. When bright clear calm finally does descend over the island, it’s anything but comforting.

From this point on, you’ll find [spoilers]:
It’s easy to denigrate the twists and turns of Shutter Island, but again I say: that’s missing the point. The main “twist” doesn’t really deserve that name; it’s an obvious possibility in the trailer, is hinted at during the approach to the hospital, and is hammered home in the first meeting between Daniels and Dr. Cawley. Any critic who is thoroughly surprised at the two-hour mark was not paying attention to the first twenty minutes.


But it’s delicious how the film plays with this supposed twist. As Kubrick subtly wove spatial distortions and temporal jumps into The Shining to give us a sense of a world out of whack, Scorsese fills the isolated world of Shutter Island with tiny mundane details that change in a blink, playing havoc with our perceptions of the concrete world. The stylized cuts, routinely and intentionally creating blips in the continuity, contribute to this sense of disjointed reality. Rather than an unreliable narrator, we are presented with an entire unreliable narrative.

For once, I feel like Scorsese has used DiCaprio to good effect. His perpetually confused babyface seems wildly unsuited to the role of the hardbitten noir anti-hero; he seems more like a lost boy dressing up to ward off the horrors of his haunted memory.

Both The Fella and I remarked upon Mark Ruffalo’s understated performance. Though good ole Chuck doesn’t have much to do in the early stages of the film, Ruffalo melts effortlessly into that 1950’s persona, coming off like a modern-day William Powell; later in the film, he expands a bit. Thoughout the film, Ruffalo does so much with so little. (In the scene with the two marshals sitting on the steps, the gentle sorrow playing across his brow says more than a paragraph of closing exposition.)

It’s not going to rank among the great films of history, but Shutter Island is more than just a ripping yarn, more than just a fun potboiler. It’s a skillful and richly rendered homage to genre films from a director with a master’s eye, a generous hand, and a loving memory.

4 thoughts on “Shutter Island: a film review

  1. A. Oopsie, editing gap now fixed with a couple of extra lines above the fold and a completed line below.
    B. Spoilers may appear in the comments, so beware if you haven’t seen the film yet.
    C. The horror! The horror!

  2. If someone clicks through the front page with its bolded spoiler warning, they ought to be prepared for the likelihood that the comments discuss any and all plot developments. Spoil away, baby!

    And frankly I think critics’ remarks that the less you know the more you’ll enjoy Shutter Island are flat-out wrong. I saw the end coming (in a very large, not detailed) way before we set foot in the theater, and I think it enhanced my enjoyment of the film.

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