Shutter Island (2010)

Next to tiny, skittering monsters and vetriloquist dummies, ghost stories scare me the most. As a cold rain pelted my window and I sat alone in my darkened apartment watching the Paramount logo give way to the opening titles of Shutter Island I thought, “This is going to scare the shit out of me.” Turns out, I was completely misled by the movie’s advertising: it’s not a ghost story at all, although dead characters make significant appearances. What awaited me was actually an unassuming but expertly crafted psychological thriller in the truest sense of both words. I was not disappointed.

The story: Our story opens in 1954 with Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels, played by Leo Decaprio, whose progression from promising child actor to useless heartthrob to serious artist never ceases to amaze me. He’s on a ferry and apparently not dealing well with the vast quantity of water outside his porthole. After a bit of retching he makes his way to the deck for a belated introduction to his new partner, Chuck, played by the always-engaging Mark Ruffalo. In the distance they spy their destination, the titular Shutter Island, home to a psychiatric hospital that caters to only the most criminally insane patients. Possibly King Kong as well.

Welcome to Skull, er...Shutter Island.

They’ve come to investigate the unexplained disappearance of one of the patients, who Ben Kingsley tells us escaped her room despite locked doors and barred windows, “as if she evaporated, straight through the walls.” An examination of the missing woman’s room reveals a hidden note suggesting the existence of a mysterious 67th patient though the doctor’s have reported there to be only 66. And with that the two men head down a winding path of misinformation, bizarre occurrences, and startling revelations as they attempt to unravel the secret of the island and its ominous Ward C, a former civil war fort now home to the most dangerous of the island’s inhabitants.

From the get-go it’s plain that more than a few things are amiss – the ghoulish Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sydow, still arresting after all these years), the cryptic patrician, Dr. Cowley (Kingsley), and a host of bizarre patients who seem to have been coached into spinning lies for the detectives, all point toward a dark conspiracy lurking beneath the island’s therapeutic mission. Running through it all are Teddy’s increasingly vivid and disturbing dreams of his dead wife, the victim of an arsonist whose confinement in and subsequent disappearance from the very same Ward C is the real reason for Teddy’s interest in the island. Or at least one of them.

To say there are plot twists within plot twists doesn’t come close to covering Shutter Island‘s complexity. There were at least two points where my brain scrunched up inside my head and threatened aneurysm over some inconsistency I was sure would lead to one conclusion, but actually took the events of the film down a wholly different path. For those gifts and more, credit is due to Dennis Lehane’s novel, upon which the film is faithfully based.

Biggest letdown: Shutter Island purposely avoids any “boo!” moments, which might disappoint some. I know at first I was a little miffed that the wonderfully subtle build-up in the first forty minutes isn’t used to set up big scares later. But it turns out to be a mature choice that gives the movie an austere dignity essential to its quiet effectiveness. Did I just do that thing you do in a job interview when someone asks your biggest weakness and you say you work too hard?

Why you should watch: I haven’t heard of Martin Scorsese but IMDB tells me he’s done a bunch of stuff. If any of his previous work is as good as Shutter Island I might have to check out a few. Raging Bull sounds like a good one, and who doesn’t like a good rodeo movie?

But seriously folks, this is an ornate, engaging piece of entertainment with a phenomenal cast, helmed by one of the best directors of this or any generation. All those credentials are put to good use, offering along the way some seriously insightful commentary on mental illness and the goals and methods of modern psychiatry, especially with regard to drug therapy. As Dr. Crowley succinctly puts it, “What should be a last resort has become a first response.”

Memorable Moment: No, not the creepy radiation victim, although she was an early treat. Instead I’ll go with the candlelit dream sequence featuring Elias Koteas (a favorite of mine since his tour de force turn as Casey Jones in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) as the hideous but unctuous firebug, Andrew Laeddis.

Choice quote: “Trust me son you haven’t heard shit. We got most of the bugsies locked down but some of em are still loose and if you see one don’t try and restrain him yourself. These fuckers’ll kill ya.”

About the Rating System

8 Responses to “Shutter Island (2010)”

  1. according to your review, this movie might make me rethink my “i’m so scared of scary movies i never watch them” mantra for long enough to check it out. however, the picture of the old woman will now haunt me in my dreams. thanks a lot, adam. thanks a lot.

  2. i read the book and was thoroughly entertained (although i did figure it out with a significant portion left to read) and i was sad when some people started telling me the movie was no good. especially because i was just coming off of reading/watching revolutionary road and was on a “leo is so talented” kick. so i’m pumped you liked it and will look forward to checking it out on hbo when it makes its way there!

  3. ha! popsicle says he figured it out in like the first seven seconds. i’m really bad at guessing things like that, but i think the movie’s twists are slightly different than the book’s so you might be in for a surprise or two toward the end. thanks for commenting sis! and you as well, mysterious ‘nm’…

  4. Heather Kaye Says:

    Oh, I haven’t seen this one yet. Will definitely need to watch soon!

  5. Heather Kaye Says:

    And I think you should do a review of Frankenhooker.

    • No can do – Frankenhooker is not available from Netflix right now! I can offer you Frankenthumb or Frankenhood though. Sadly I have already seen Frankenfish…

  6. […] Shutter Island – No ghosts but a plenty of chills. It’s always good to see an upstart director do well. […]

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