Shutter Island

Posted on June 8, 2010 at 8:00 am

Dennis Lehane, author of gritty crime novels like Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone and one of the writers of “The Wire,” and director Martin Scorsese, best known for movies like “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” about wiseguys, hitmen, and omertas, have come together for “Shutter Island.” While it is less a crime story than a horror-tinged psychological mystery, this, too, is about murder and madness, the difficulty of separating truth from lies, about twisted motives and anguished fears, and about the devastating consequences of unthinkable pain and loss.

Set in 1954, it begins when a murderer confined to a hospital for the criminally insane has not just escaped; she has disappeared. She was in a locked cell and then she was gone.

In the midst of a huge, gusting rainstorm, two federal marshals investigate, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo). The hospital, once a Civil War fort, is on an island off the coast of Massachusetts and when the storm knocks out all power and phone lines they are completely isolated. The marshals get soaked in the rain so they change into the only dry clothes available — orderly uniforms. They begin to look as though they belong there.

The hospital is eerie. The doctors are smooth but uncooperative, with an unsettling way of diagnosing not just the patients but the marshals — they seem to think that they are the ones who are asking questions. The patients cannot be trusted. But can anyone?

To say any more about what happens would be to spoil it. So, I’ll just write a bit about about some of what goes on around what is happening to the characters.

The first is just the pure pleasure of seeing a master film-maker showing us everything in his power after a lifetime of watching and making movies. No one in history has ever been more passionate about film than Martin Scorsese and that is clear in every placement of the camera, every cut from his full partner in film-making, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and every element of the set from his “Casino” production designer Dante Ferretti. The camera tracks through the dank corridors, the blade-like steps of the circular staircase, the driving rain and sheer cliff, telling us just what Scorsese wants us to know and no more. Each shot keeps us inside Teddy’s thoughts and the shifts between the objective and subjective are handled with a consummate understanding of the language of cinema.

Next is the choice of the setting, not just the island but the era. We see Teddy frequently thinking back to his traumatic experience at the liberation of the concentration camp Dachau. Teddy and the doctors are very much of their time a crucial one in the development of psychiatric theories as three camps — surgical, pharmaceutical, and talk therapies competed with each other and this adds another layer of interest to the proceedings.

Finally, this is a movie where everything feels like a metaphor, a clue, or both at once and every single detail is a part of the story. The intricacy of the story reaches a meta-level about the power of stories — to harm and to heal. It is an expert thriller with plenty of chills and jumps and goosebumps but finally it is the questions it raises about our ability to trust the characters and our own conclusions that will haunt us.

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Based on a book Drama Thriller

22 Replies to “Shutter Island”

  1. I am very disappointed that yet another film has pushed me away with its content. I find it sad that Scorsese felt he needed to continue the disgusting double standard towards males by showing graphic male frontal nudity only.

  2. Tim, once again you are taking this issue out of proportion and out of context. It has nothing to do with a double standard. The nudity is non-sexual, a brief glimpse of mental patients who are naked. This movie has many extremely disturbing images and plot elements that are far more significant in determining its appropriateness and merits. And it is a mistake to insist on some sort of artificial “equality” within the confines of every individual movie without regard to the purpose and story and setting. I am not suggesting you see this film as I do not think it is to your taste. But I do not think it is useful to continue to pursue this issue of a purported double standard.

  3. Nell, when they start showing females equally exposed in the same type of situations as you described, then it will no longer be an issue. However, there are none that exist and that is a double standard. However, out of respect for you and the website, I will not pursue the issue on this film any further. I only intended to express why I will not be seeing it. I will be looking forward to commenting on other films that I hope to see or have seen. As always, thank you.

  4. This is an interesting twist to things. Seems like it wasn’t all that long ago that people were complaining that frequently a “mature” film might have ample female nudity, including full-frontal, but the best you ever got of the males was a glimpse of the buttocks, and even then not the same lingering shots. Though my beef with the system is how it seems a film can be loaded to the gills with extremely graphic violence and still only pull off an R-rating at best, but fill it with graphic sex and nudity, and you’re likely to get an NC-17/X (which for my tastes, I find two people engaging in an act that starts life to be more palatable than seeing the same two people engaging in an act that ends life), but that’s a rant for a different film.
    It’s doubtful I’ll be seeing this film. I know a lot of people love Martin Scorcese as a filmmaker, but I tend to find his “grittiness” that so many people respect for gets too gratuitous for my tastes. But beyond that, I was concerned when I saw the ads that I was getting too much of a sense of how the movie was going to end, which is not a good thing with a thriller that’s supposed to be all twisting and surprise-laden; I sought out some synopses of the novel and came to find that though I hadn’t guessed the ending perfectly, I was pretty darn close. That was disappointing.

  5. Nell,
    Once again, it appears we are of a similar opinion. I thought that if this film was put in the hands of someone else (other than Scorsese and DiCaprio) it would have been nowhere near as good.
    Still, I had one or two issues with it…one being that the major plot twist, in my mind, was very predictable. Sure, we’ve seen similar things before (how hard is it becoming to come up with something truly original now?!), but it was not hard to see where it was going. A few elements within the twist were not as predictable so you still had “Ohhhhh…” moments.
    All in all, an above average, but not stellar thriller.

  6. Thanks, Dave, I agree. The other films I saw this week, which I will be reviewing later, were typical of what you described. The girls were uniformly gorgeous and the nudity was objectifying and generic, with the exception of one male bare butt that was intended to be comic. Note, I said “intended to be.”
    This movie less gritty than much of Scorsese’s work and it is more about mood than plot, but if you are not inclined to see it, I’d trust that instinct.

  7. It is interesting that full frontal male nudity is now considered ” some nudity.”. I suspect that in future films that show full frontal female nudity in a similar fashion will also be reflected as “some nudity” to avoid the impression of a double standard. I do enjoy your reviews. However, the double standard bothers more of us then you may think. I will not be seeing it either.

  8. “Some nudity” refers to the proportion of screen time, Mark, not to the body parts shown. Female nudity of the same duration and specificity would be characterized the same way. No double standard whatsoever in the way I define nudity on screen as a part of the information I provide to help parents and others decide whether a movie is appropriate for them and for their families. That includes people like you who may wish to make a decision based all or in part on whether the movie shows the same amount of male and female nudity.
    Other relevant elements that go into my description include the context and intention (sexual, comic, whether I consider it objectifying or exploitative, etc.).

  9. I for one am grateful for the time and detail that reviewers like Nell try to take in presenting their film critiques. After all, it took the MPAA way too long just to get around to telling us anything at all about why they thought a movie deserved a PG, PG-13 or R (for years, they seemed to think “R” was more than enough information for parents to make a decision on), but still all they will tell you about whether or not a movie has nudity is that it has nudity, and like Nell has noted, not all nudity is made the same, or all violence, or all language, etc.
    I’m 42, my one child is grown, so I don’t need to make movie-going decisions on her behalf anymore. But I still need to make movie-going decisions for me. And I’m not such a prude that I’m bothered by a little nudity or language or violence, provided it’s integral to the plot. There’s a huge difference, for example, between the nudity in Schindler’s List, which (coupled with everything else we see in the movie) goes a long way in helping us to appreciate the inhumanities those concentration camp prisoners went through, vs. say the random sex scene stuck in the middle of White Men Can’t Jump for no apparent reason except possibly to boost the MPAA rating up a notch. Likewise, there’s a big difference between the violence in The Godfather vs a lot of the torture porn that’s out nowadays, or the profanity in Patton vs. just about anything starring Sean William Scott.
    That’s why I’m grateful to critics like Nell who do their reviews in such a way as to ensure we don’t just know that a movie might contain objectionable material, but that we also know the context by which it’s presented, because often the context goes a long way in making those elements palatable or not. I also know that sometimes Nell gets a little beaten up on here by people who think she should automatically give a film an “F” because it may contain mature materials, i.e. if it’s not good for kids to see than apparently it’s not good for anybody to see. The Watchmen comes to mind for that – it was a really well crafted movie (though admittedly I thought there was a lot of violence, sex and nudity in that film that added little and ultimately seemed distracting from what was an otherwise good film) that was very much intended for a mature audience, and Nell rated it accordingly. Like I said, some thought she she should have just given it an F for the graphic elements, but she didn’t, and I appreciate that. Based on Nell’s review, while I knew better than to take a child to see it, I found it to be quite entertaining and thought provoking – had she just slammed it out-right, I wouldn’t have had that ability and might have passed over an otherwise great movie. Besides, she was very clear in outlining that though she thought it was a good movie, she made every attempt to be up-front that many of her readers may prefer to pass it over, and certainly even though it was a “super hero” movie, it wasn’t Spider-Man or even The Dark Knight.
    Nell, I’m grateful to you for your site and love reading your reviews. Rarely have I come out of a movie that you recommended and thought, “OMG – what was Nell thinking!?” Nor have I passed over a movie you slammed only to stumble across it later and actually enjoy it – you’re consistently right on the money. But more importantly than that, I love the way you construct your reviews, allowing me to determine, based on the content vs how much you liked or disliked it, to make my own educated decision on whether or not the film is for me. Thanks for what you do.

  10. Thanks very much, Dave. Your kind words and wonderful comments mean the world to me — I do this as a labor of love and it is people like you who keep me going.

  11. I saw the movie today and honestly didn’t even notice the full-frontal male nudity (I assume it was the naked man in the cell, but the scene lighting was dark and I did not note that he was visible that low but a teenager might have paid more attention to that). I agree with Dave that the context makes a big difference. I’m a doctor so I’m not shocked by the sight of a nude body, but I am very offended by the sex and sexualized/gratuitous female nudity that is present in almost every movie. I don’t want to see them myself and certainly don’t want my kids seeing them. The nudity in Shutter Island and Schindler’s List fit the scenes, however. If my children were old/mature enough to not be disturbed by the rest of the movie, I personally would not have a problem with them seeing the scene with the nudity. I think some of the other scenes in the movie could definitely be very upsetting to kids and teens. The horrors of the victims in the concentration camp could make an adult have nightmares…
    Several times during DiCaprio’s dreams I found myself thinking that it was a strange movie, but I really enjoyed the film.

  12. Unfortunately, I recently read a review of this movie that revealed the ending. No “spoiler alerts” at all… the writer just sort of threw it out there, without warning. I was quite annoyed!
    That said, I’m going to see the Shutter Island anyway, because it looks like the type of movie I’d rather like, if I didn’t read the spoiler.
    Frankly, those hesitations I do have, are the result of Martin Scorsese’s support of Roman Polanski. I told myself that I’d not see anything done by any filmmaker that would support the perpetrator of the acts Polanski admits to committing. I hate that I’m back-pedaling already, but unfortunately his supporters in the film business are numerous. Not sure this is the venue to discuss Polanski, though…

  13. Nell –
    Good to see you’re still “in business.” I lost track of you since you parted with Yahoo. For my tastes, and senses, I consider you to be the most consistently reliable reviewer around. With that said, I’ll be sure to check this flick out.
    By the bye, are you going to review the Polanski movie? Thanks for all the great nods!

  14. Kelly, I have had to remove your comment as we have a very strict policy on this site prohibiting insults in referring to other commentors. If you would care to try to make your points without insults, I’d be glad to respond to them.

  15. Without spoiling this movie, I have to say that I was very disappointed in “Shutter Island” and hated it as much as I hated Scorsese’s remake of “Cape Fear.” I agree with Tom Clocker about one of the plot twists, which I guessed at the beginning of the film. I also felt the treatment of the story didn’t play fair with the audience, and was a bit too “literalist” given the subject matter.
    The premise was so intriguing that I was hoping for a much, much better film. Dicaprio’s performance was good, though I wish he would stop wrinkling his brow to depict distress. What made it worth the price of admission? The scene in the car between Dicaprio’s character and the great Ted Levine’s prison warden, and the brief cameo by Max Von Sydow.

  16. I understand, Alicia! I want to see it again to re-interpret some of the plot developments and dialogue in light of the final revelations. For me, the deciding factor in my evaluation was seeing it as a kind of meta-story about stories, if that makes sense. But I can see your side and was not surprised that this movie divided the critics so sharply.

  17. I read the book and it was by far one of the best books I’ve read in a loooong time, so I hope the movie lives up to it! Can’t wait to see it!

  18. I rented this movie, though Pay-Per-View, this week-end and must say, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It has mystery, intrigue, twists and turns, and the acting and directing are certainly especially good. Perhaps the critics, here, are not fans of this genre (of movie), which is understandable as parts of it are disturbing, as is life, on this planet. One does not go to such movies to be merely entertained, or to have a few good laughs, which definitely aren’t within its scope or part of its objective. If one reads the story, what can one possibly expect from the movie?!

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