Using the lockdown as a good excuse to cycle through a slew of movies that are both personal favourites and recommendations from friends, I found myself sliding into the embrace of this movie, whose very essence and meaning had me confounded the first time I watched it with my then 'movie buddy' [in 2010]. I really didn’t know what Scorsese was trying to say then and I was a bit spooked about it! So, here we are in 2020, and it's time for a revisit and another look.
Adapted from the Dennis Lehane novel, the trailers made it look like something of a straight-up psychological horror send-up.
But it is hardly pulpy or seedy. Scorsese breathes new life into the narrative. A 1950s period piece with plenty of atmosphere and mood to enthral, Shutter Island is an enigma that has a tightrope-tenuous connection to reality. Those were the days when soldiers returning from the travails of warfare were seen as cowards when they were actually suffering from PTSD; that was when psychiatry was still considered as mumbo-jumbo science, not entirely understood or trusted.
To get back to the film, Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio, his neurotic best) and Chuck Aule (Ruffalo, a voice of reason?) are federal marshals called to the island to investigate the disappearance of patient Rachel Solando (Mortimer, very spooky). After being greeted by a cadre of grim-faced, rifle-toting guards, they meet up with Drs. Cawley (Kingsley) and Naehring (Max von Sydow). The former is an advocate for new and experimental forms of psychiatry.
The pacing takes its time; it is gradual and builds mystery and character. Scorsese uses the narrative tools of a sutradhar he honed on epic works like Goodfellas to create atmosphere and suspense. The use of dream sequences; odd narrators etc are just as important as what we see as the protagonist's reality on screen.
Similarly, the island is presented as its own contained world. From the moment Daniels and Aule spot the venue, to their ride to the main campus, and the various rooms and buildings they’ll explore before the credits roll, Scorsese understands the aesthetic value of presenting the place as more than just a nut-house. While Shutter Island shock-value perspective, and while Shutter Island has its jump-scare moments (the creepy woman in the garden and inside the sealed-off wing), the approach to its core characters stems from a place of empathy and understanding.
It’s a dark film, literally and figuratively. But also not without humanity. It is as confessional as it is a contemplative mood piece.
The ensemble is populated with brilliant actors. The film is anchored by DiCaprio and Ruffalo, but when their characters begin to lose touch with their respective roles is when Scorsese assimilates them further into the dank, dripping corridors of the asylum.
Kingsley and von Sydow are fantastic. As is John Carroll Lynch (Zodiac), Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen), Ted Levine (The Silence of the Lambs), and Elias Koteas (Cronenberg’s Crash). Each actor is given at least a few minutes of screen time, but that’s more than enough to leave an indelible impression. It’s also interesting how Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis approach the cliches that spring up within the plot: when downed power lines disconnect the island from the mainland, it’s relegated to a several-second scene. The initial investigation into Rachel’s disappearance is done through a series of swift edits accompanied by a voice-over from Kingsley. Through this perfunctory approach, Scorsese hints that these details are not the crux of the film. The clever part is that we don’t realize this until the credits roll.
The question of whether or not Teddy is of sound mind surfaces early on, and the ghostly spectre of his wife, Dolores (Williams) appears periodically in his dreams. The sequence where Teddy holds an ashen Dolores as their apartment burns is poetic in its tragedy – the vision of a man choking on the ashes of memory, to borrow a lyric from the late Kury Cobain's All Apologies.
Scorsese captures the surreal moments as they are – not narrative tapestries that make complete and utter sense, but jagged and disjointed, just like how it is when we're dreaming. The earliest (and best) instance of this is when Teddy envisions himself implicated in Rachel’s crimes (she drowned her children). There’s a terrifying moment where the blood-stained kids lie at their feet, but there’s something disturbing about the depiction, perhaps because Scorsese eschews graphic, real-world detail for something that's suggestive and plays on the mind after the movie is over. The horrors that Rachel has inflicted on the kids and as a result, Teddy, is implied to chilling effect.
And that’s part of what makes Shutter Island such a work of immense proportions. Sure, Scorsese has made crowd-pleasers and critically-acclaimed capers but this will throw you for a toss. Like many movies with tantalising, brain-salad type endings, there are various explanations to this one as well. Interested? Go see it again!
Reagan Gavin Rasquinha is a writer.
He doesn't tell tall tales together, but separately speaking, he is tall and tells tales. So here's one of them...