Based on Dennis Lehane’s best-selling novel, Shutter Island (2010) is Scorsese’s best box office performer to date: it debuted at number one and so far has made $294,803,014 worldwide.
Despite this, and a pile of positive critical and academic reviews, there are those who don’t feel the love for Shutter Island the film. No less a publication than the New York Times snarked, “Something TERRIBLE is afoot. Sadly, that something turns out to be the movie itself.” Is Shutter Island terrible?
Well, that depends. Certainly, Shutter Island is going to fail the taste test for some people. If you don’t like noir films, or highly stylised films, or psychological thrillers, or ghost stories, or Victorian-style gothic horror, or period dramas, or police procedurals, or violent films, or dark films, or ‘twist in the tail’ films, then you might have problems warming to Shutter Island.
Which is a shame, because there is much to like about this dense though relatively straightforward story. Of course, the point is that Shutter Island affects not to be a straightforward story at all. Much of its publicity relied on not giving away the “surprise” ending. But the film’s great flaw is that Scorsese seems to realise that most viewers will twig early on that all is not as it seems, and that they will be looking for clues that have to be there in order for the ending to be in any way plausible. This results in the film winding up stranded in a genre that is otherwise populated almost exclusively by the works of M. Night Shyamalan, may his career be carted off by ghosts and aliens.
Here’s a message for those mouthbreathers who are reading this, even though they haven’t seen the film and intend to: please stop reading now because there are more spoilers ahead than you can a shake a stick labelled “Teddy Daniels and Andrew Laeddis are the same person and Andrew shot his wife because she drowned their children” at.
The story begins on a boat headed for Shutter Island, which is basically a massive psychiatric institution for the criminally insane – as Annette Wernblad points out, both the name of the island and the mode of transportation, are, in themselves, clues because “shutters” and bodies of water have associations with mental states.
On board is US Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo). Teddy is horribly seasick and the environs on board don’t help: the “ferry” seems to be empty apart from all the shackles dangling from the ceilings. “It’s only water, Teddy. A hell of a lot of water,” Daniels reassures himself. CLUE NUMBER ONE! Teddy hates water.
Ostensibly, Teddy is going to investigate the disappearance of a patient named Rachel Solando. Rachel killed her children and now lives in a fantasy world where her children are still alive and her nurses and fellow patients are simply the neighbours, postal workers and milkmen she left behind when she was incarcerated. But Teddy has another agenda: to track down Andrew Laeddis, a Shutter Island inmate and the man Teddy holds responsible for the death of his wife Dolores (Michelle Williams).
This classic Macguffin is, naturally, a smokescreen for what Teddy is really looking for even if he doesn’t know it yet – his own identity and the truth about his own past. Rachel Solando doesn’t even exist. She is simply a character invented by a progressive psychiatrist who is trying to get Teddy to face facts. This is becoming a pressing issue: Teddy is delusional and has become so violent that a supervisory board has ordered that he be lobotomised. Everything that happens from the time we meet Teddy until he realises he himself is Andrew Laeddis is part of an elaborate form of therapy invented by Dr Cawley (a suitably enigmatic Ben Kingsley).
Even Chuck turns out to be Teddy’s own doctor, which in hindsight makes sense of a few things – like his lack of finesse with firearms, or his insistence of being with Teddy all the time. There are other clues too – discussed ad nauseum, so for a comprehensive list feel free to ask Dr Google to help you out.
Shutter Island’s most obvious ancestor is William Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration – all about what happens when a nightmare-plagued Marine is locked up in a castle-like institution and forced to confront his demons. There are many, many cult film fans who prefer Blatty’s treatment, finding Scorsese’s to be quite simply not weird enough.
In some ways that’s a fair criticism. For a film featuring storms, wild chases, gothic settings, child murder, spousal slaughter, nightmarish visions and the world’s most hideous tie Shutter Island still manages to feel oddly subdued – as though it’s really trying its damndest to keep the lid on a wild, unrestrained urge that, disappointingly, it never gives into.
On the other hand, there are those viewers (like me) who can appreciate the restraint on show. This is Martin Scorsese – he doesn’t know how to make big, dumb, fun. Perhaps that is unfortunate, but at least it mean there are plenty of fun arguments to be had about whether or not his treatment was right way to go.
These arguments ignore the point about where Shutter Island fits in Scorsese’s body of work. With its themes of fragile identity and dysfunctional relationships and psychological breakdown it sits neatly beside films like Casino and The Aviator (to cite but two examples), but the Scorsese film it reminded me of most – both stylistically and in terms of its protagonist’s rather debatable spiritual redemption – was Bringing out the Dead.
Teddy’s last line – uttered after he has worked out the awful truth and been told why he needs to face it – is famously that he’s been thinking about whether it would be worse “to live as a monster, or die as a good man”. The tragedy, of course, is that Andrew Laeddis is not a monster at all, despite having killed his wife. He is simply a deeply flawed human being who has been traumatised by events in his life beyond his control: war, alcoholism, his wife’s mental illness, and done something terrible. On that level Teddy is a character on a par with other memorable Scorsese men like Travis Bickle and Jake la Motta.
Ultimately, that Shutter Island was commercially successful but not universally lauded may be put down to the fact that this is a Scorsese film that is not enough of a Scorsese film. It pains me to mention him again, but Shutter Island can fairly be described as the greatest film that M. Night Shyamalan never made.