Review: Shutter Island, 2010, dir. Martin Scorsese

(Warning: The following review delves ever so slightly into spoiler territory, so you may wish to avoid reading this if you haven’t watched the movie yet.)

And for his next trick, Martin Scorsese does his very best M. Night Shyamalan impression and tries his hand at the horror genre.

Shutter Island, by all means, isn’t a bad movie; it’s just a movie that’s completely beneath a veteran and iconic filmmaker like Scorsese. Certainly Scorsese isn’t above making genre pictures or shooting a horror film, but he’s certainly better than giving in and falling afoul of modern lazy and cheap filmmaking conventions, and the one moment of weakness he affords himself in Shutter Island tanks his integrity and undermines the solid, chilling, and atmospheric detective thriller he spends two hours building upon before the climax rolls around. The Shyamalan reference isn’t totally arbitrary; Scorsese’s film ends with a truly puzzling and scatterbrained reveal that calls the entire film preceding it into question and really stretches the limits of suspension of disbelief. Which is a shame, because Shutter Island could have been a pretty great film sans the needless damage these twists and turns inflict upon narrative and plot.

Shutter Island‘s action takes place on an island in Boston Harbor, upon which Ashecliffe Hospital– a facility for the criminally insane– is located. We join Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) as they arrive to assist in the search for an escaped patient who allegedly disappeared from the secured confines of her cell. In their search they’re alternately aided and simultaneously balked by head psychiatrist John Cawley (Ben Kingsley) as they being to uncover a terrible secret about the hospital and its true purpose. All the while, Teddy’s own mental state degrades as he’s tormented by visions of his dead wife while he searches for the man who claimed her life– who happens to be a patient at the facility.

If I have but one reaction to Shutter Island it’s that I’d like to see Scorsese go for full-on horror in the future. Shutter Island is high concept “horror” that never goes into full-on scare territory but instead wades into eerie and unnerving waters ponderously and very deliberately; it’s a slow-burn based more on pace, tension, and atmosphere than outright terror (though it certainly has its share of unsettling and creepy moments). Scorsese, working off of a Dennis Lehane novel, takes his time developing his world and his characters and relishes getting the audience to the pulse-quickening moments of dread that come to define part of the movie’s identity; unsurprisingly he’s more than adept at fostering the inherent suspense and anticipation of the plot. We might expect to be scared more than we are but I think that that’s exactly what Scorsese is aiming for– generating that sense of fear one feels when they know they’re about to be scared by something just to make us feel it. It’s pretty gripping stuff, rewarding to experience and utterly effective when it has us in its thrall.

But in the end Shutter Island proudly identifies itself more as a thriller than a total horror film– and Scorsese has plenty of experience in both of those areas. So the purest joy of the film comes from knowing that we’re watching a true master in his profession perform his craft and captivate us with an engrossing and expertly stitched together mystery. If nothing else Shutter Island is an incredibly well-made film, paced absolutely perfectly and structured logically and intelligently; it doesn’t hurt that it also boasts some of the best photography seen this year, so much so that Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson make the Medfield State Hospital’s age and decay look stunningly beautiful in all its decrepit and time-worn glory. Maybe this should be expected from a veteran filmmaker like Scorsese; he’s a man who’s been anchored behind the camera for four decades or so and who knows exactly what he wants out of every shot every single time, after all, so praising his pictures (even his more slight ones, like Gangs of New York or The Aviator) for being so perfectionist almost feels unnecessary. Such compliments nearly go without saying.

At the center of all of this technical excellence, there’s a story about a man unraveling and losing his sense of self. It’s interesting that Shutter Island came out just five months before Christopher Nolan’s Inception; they’re completely different movies that compete with one another on the basis of common themes and a shared leading man (and for my money Nolan has Scorsese beat). Cut away the details that separate these two films from one another and you have a core narrative about one man desperate to put off confronting reality and facing down a looming, personal, and emotional trauma involving the death of his wife. Ultimately this is the story of Teddy Daniels and his unwillingness to confront honestly the circumstances surrounding his wife Dolores’ (Michelle Williams) untimely end, and about his crumbling sanity and slowly fading identity. And it’s also about Leonardo DiCaprio’s continued position as Scorsese’s latest on-screen alter ego as he yet again takes the starring role in the director’s latest picture.

It’s almost a given today that if Scorsese comes out with a new movie, DiCaprio will be one of the leads. It’s not like this is an unheard of practice; certainly directors of old have done it (Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa were both well-known for it) and even other directors today play favorites (Tim Burton, for example, with Johnny Depp). And DiCaprio himself has lately become something of a go-to guy for playing troubled anti-heroes between his roles in The Departed and Inception, so apart from this being a Scorsese film the actor feels right at home here. DiCaprio’s performance evolves from a portrait of a hard-boiled, hot-headed gumshoe-type to a frantic and broken man desperately trying to assuage himself of his own guilt and spiritual pain; the actor makes his character a performer in his own way and lets his transformation come gradually and naturally, never overselling or tipping his hat too much to reveal more of his character’s mind than he needs to. DiCaprio continues, in movie after movie, to mature as an actor, and between Shutter Island and Inception 2010 might be one of his best years yet, with two really choice performances delivered under the guidance of two high profile directors.

I’ve written over a thousand words of positive commentary on this film, and I’m not trying to mislead you at all– Shutter Island is worth seeing, without a doubt. But it’s probably not worth revisiting almost solely because of how badly it missteps in its last act by upending the entire movie we’ve just watched and pulling the rug out from underneath us. There’s nothing wrong with a game-changing twist or reveal; such tricks can be immensely satisfying dramatically and can add to the story in a meaningful way that enhances the entire experience of watching the movie. But as with everything, there’s a right way to write a twist and a wrong way, and Shutter Island regrettably toddles down the latter path and shoots itself in the foot along the way. Twists should never, ever make a viewer skeptical about the movie preceding them, and unfortunately that’s precisely what happens in Shutter Island‘s climax. Coming from another filmmaker this might have been forgivable in light of the quality of the rest of the film– indeed, a rookie director would have been highly praised for turning out such an accomplished movie despite the grievous error in its denouement– but for Scorsese this is utterly inexcusable, a lapse in judgment that ends up marring an otherwise worthwhile movie from one of the greatest directors of his time.

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12 thoughts on “Review: Shutter Island, 2010, dir. Martin Scorsese

  1. I don’t even think that counts as a spoiler. It’s so obvious.

    I liked this. Pulpy and probably won’t be much remembered as anything but a filler Scorsese film, but still.

  2. I enjoyed Shutter Island quite a lot. It’s a nice change of pace movie for Martin Scorsese and although Leonardo DiCaprio repeats himself as the tormented lead character, I didn’t know that until I saw Inception 😉

    So what do you think? Is he “aware” at the end?

  3. I’m somewhere between you and Castor on this way and obviously, just based on my blog, everyone should know Scorsese is something I always want to put my 2 cents into.

    The reality with almost all thrillers these days is that the execution is almost always better than the payoff. It’s a reality. I don’t fault Scorsese for taking on a project with this kind of ending, but rather praise him for making it a better film than anyone else should have in spite of all this. Yes it’s minor Scorsese but how many other filmmakers do such a brillant job at making minor movies? (I have to disagree with Aviator, which I believe to be a great film).

    With that I disagree with Nolan has Scorsese beat. Sure, in terms of entertainment Inception is the better film, but Nolan doesn’t see as clearly and doesn’t have as tight a grasp on his story as Scorsese does. I still don’t buy the Incption as metaphor for filmmaking argument and still think it nothing more than a high concept action movie so therefore I find there to be more depth to Shutter Island, even if it is just purely an entertainment. An if nothing else, it’s a hell of an homage.

  4. Creepy, with an atmosphere that keeps on playing with you, and playing, until the ending comes up, and you still don’t quite know what’s going on when it’s all said and done. Good review!

  5. Ripley– probably not that much of a spoiler but I like to play it safe. And yeah, it’s not a bad film at all but it’s just not going to be remembered as something more than just a bit of fluff in Marty’s body of work.

    Castor– well, I saw Inception before this, so it’s out of order for me. As to the end– he’s totally aware. No way no how is he still totally bonkers. I think he wants to live in his delusions, though, which is a similar choice to what Cobb makes depending on how you take Inception. Interesting.

    Mike– That doesn’t really excuse it, though. It might be the convention but that doesn’t mean we should write it off. It’s sloppy storytelling. It’s hackish, cheap, and lazy. If that’s what everyone else is doing why is Scorsese, one of the masters of filmmaking, doing it? That’s my frustration. If this were another director, it wouldn’t matter as much because I’d expect it of them. Scorsese? He’s better than that.

    I think we can argue until we’re both blue in the face (fingers?) about Inception but I don’t agree at all that Nolan doesn’t have a tight grasp on his story. More than that how does the filmmaking metaphor not hold up?

    CMrok– thanks! Glad you enjoyed, and I agree about the atmosphere part even if the ending really ruined things for me.

  6. I enjoyed this film too – you’re right definitely not one of Scorsese’s best and it’s mediocre for such a talented director. But still good enough nonetheless. I wouldn’t say it was his worst, that award can go to Gangs of New York.

  7. Why all the hate for Gangs of New York I wonder. Maybe no one has seen The Color of Money when it comes to deciding Scorsese’s worst?

    Anyway Andrew, yes we could go back and forth all day about Inception, the irony the I like the movie quite a bit as well, just on a more superficial level than you, but if one if to go back and forth it may as well be done with someone of your high standards.

    The reason I know like the metaphor for filmmaking argument is because, as I’ve said before, it’s too easy, whether it is true or not. The reason being that every film that is about dreams of time travel is, in some way, inherently about filmmaking whether the creators intended it to be or not, just like movies about memoriy loss are always inherently about nuture vs. nature whether intended to be or not. With that we could argue that Hot Tub Time Machine is a a metaphor for filmmaking, as the men enter a world where they can manipulate their past in order to create a brand new future and all that good stuff. It could be argued, but why bother?

    Sure, maybe it isn’t fair, HTTM is certainly not a film to reach the quality of Inception, which certainly has far more depth and ambition but still, what do we gain from arguing the Inception is a film about filmmaking? It doesn’t change the experience, doesn’t make it any more profound and doesn’t make it any less of an action movie in which the final act is almost entirely dedication to gunplay and explosions. It’s just like how you can argue until your blue in the face about whether Cobb is awake or dreaming in the end, but really what does it matter, it doesn’t really change the movie in the least, it just gives you something to walk away and argue about.

    On top of that, why does it matter if Inception is about filmmaking? The subject has already been explored to it’s maximum effect, directly in 8 1/2 and indirectly in Persona, and Inception really brings nothing new to light. Sure you argue it well, and I don’t deny that everything you put forward in your argument that Inception is about filmmaking, but my response to you and anyone else who raises this debate is always: so what?

    • Mike– But that’s such a cop-out. Sure it’s been done before. So has Shutter Island— and it’s been done better and by less iconic filmmakers. Inception, frankly and if you want to get really nit-picky, hasn’t been done before because neither 8 & 1/2 nor Persona are huge mainstream mainstays that everyone knows about and cherishes like you and I do, and I don’t believe either reached an audience as wide and as general as Inception. So if the problem is that Inception has been done before and we can acknowledge that the same is true of Scorsese’s movie, then all I can say about Shutter Island is– so what? It might be better made than other movies of its type but I’d rather watch movies that don’t self-destruct before the credits roll.

      And I disagree completely that you could ever explore filmmaking and the process of filmmaking to its maximum effect with just two movies, let alone dozens. Creating art is such an intimate process and unique across artists that if you took every great contemporary filmmaker– David Fincher, Park Chan-wook, Wong Kar-wai, Peter Jackson, Marty Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, Guillermo del Toro, Edgar Wright, and so on and so on– and asked them to make a film about making films, each one of them would feel and express something different.

      What matters about Inception‘s metaphor, as I’ve said before, is that it dispels the notion that movies are simply entertainment and fluff. What we experience from them– the emotions we feel and the catharses we undergo– is completely real even if they’re not. I can think of absolutely no mainstream blockbuster movies that have made this argument at all, let alone with the panache and elegance of Inception.

      Olive– glad to have you back! And agree about Gangs of New York, which might not be his worst but certainly ranks up there. It’s just not a good film– again, he can do better.

      CFFC– I agree. I don’t like twists that call the entire movie into question and that’s exactly what Shutter Island does.

  8. Andrew- Quite a good debate going on here. hopefully someone else will jump in with their 2 cents as well. I find it ironic with all this talk of Scorsese’s worst and minor Scorsese that these films are simply being judged relative to all other Scorcese films. If we think in terms of just the films, isolated from their director, Scorsese has never really made an outright bad film.

    Maybe it was a cop-out and maybe it was so because I didn’t word it properly: I don’t think the matter is the Inception has been done before it’s that in terms of this whole “film as metaphor for filmmaking” it doesn’t really do anything, it doesn’t add anything to the film, doesn’t make it any more meaningful and doesn’t take away from the fact that it occurs in a really big action movie with neato special effects which is, arguably, why most of those 15 year olds who made this flick such a big success (I’m generalizing of course) loved it so much, not because it’s a film about filmmaking.

    In that sense, Inception is the cop-out, a film with big ideas that can’t escape the need to blow up lots of real estate in the process. I’m not complaining: I’d rather a complex film blow a lot of stuff up than a stupid one.

    You want to know a film with big ideas that reached a huge audience that actually was made better by the notions it explored: The Dark Knight. There was a film that gained extra meaning from what it explored or hinted at under the surface. Inception was neither improved or hurt by this extra layer of meaning you’ve argued in its favour.

    With that said, one more thing I don’t like about the argument is that the study of dreams is essentially the study of film (David Mamet has been saying for many years that books on dreams are the best guides to film studies) which is to say that it simply exists in the context of any film about dreams whether it is intential or not, so bringing it to light, arguing about it, writing essays on the subject simply seems to overstate what is already obvious and doesn’t contribute to the overall enjoyment or understanding of the film in any way.

    • Again, I disagree completely. I think Inception‘s filmmaking metaphor supports and strengthens the critical catharsis that Fischer experiences. Fischer’s changed by something that’s complete bullshit, a hoax, chicanery. He’s led on and ultimately transformed by the narrative Cobb and his crew construct. And that underlines the importance of Inception‘s filmmaking theme. Hell, it’s essential to it successfully translating to audiences.

      The Dark Knight is a huge overrated piece of superhero realism that, frankly, doesn’t benefit that much from its politics at all. What does an exploration of Batman’s mass-violation of the privacy of Gotham’s citizens ultimately add to his battle with the Joker? Sorry, that’s a movie that I liked but never really connected to on any substantial level exactly because the thematic underpinnings don’t ever seem to matter to how the movie plays out.

  9. It’s interesting that you should call this a horror film. I think Scorsese has done horror previously – Cape Fear – but Shutter Island is more a mystery-thriller than a horror film. Maybe that accounts for me liking the film a lot more than you – it had me hooked with its sense of the whodunnit throughout and Dicaprio was excellent.

    I can see your point about the ending. However, Scorsese makes it work with that brilliant, moving final sequence, when Teddy Daniels ‘returns’. This, for me, was the proper resolution that made the admittedly infuriating – “it was all a dream” – plot worthwhile in the end. The film works even more so when you actually know what is going on. That’s testament to how good the film is.

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