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Scorsese/DiCaprio: 'Shutter Island'
"You're smarter than you look, Marshal. That's probably not a good thing."
Killers of the Flower Moon, the latest collaboration between cinematic deity Martin Scorsese and the mega-star Leonardo DiCaprio, will be released this Friday, October 20. In anticipation of this momentous event, I’m going to spend this week taking a look back at the duo’s previous partnerships. So far, we’ve re-reviewed 2002’s Gangs of New York, 2004’s The Aviator, and 2006’s The Departed. We continue today with the duo’s fourth team-up: 2010’s Shutter Island.
Shutter Island isn’t the weakest of the films made by Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio - but it’s probably the least-interesting. It’s reasonably entertaining enough, and there are certainly things to recommend it - this is, after all, a Scorsese picture, and Scorsese on his worst day is still better than almost any other filmmaker. But it ultimately feels like a triumph of tone over narrative. Put another way: I’m not convinced it’s as profound as it aims to be. As one character tells DiCaprio partway through the film, “You're smarter than you look, Marshal. That's probably not a good thing.”
Adapted by the severely-mediocre Laeta Kalogridis (Terminator Genisys, Alita: Battle Angel) from a novel by the preeminent crime writer Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone, Baby, Gone), Shutter Island is set in 1954, when a pair of U.S. Marshals, Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), are dispatched to the titular mental institution for the criminally insane to investigate the inexplicable disappearance of a filicidal patient, Rachel Solando (played in different sequences by both Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson). Teddy suffers from nightmares centered on both his role liberating Dachau at the end of World War II and the death of his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), in a fire started by a pyromaniac, Andrew Laeddis (Elias Koteas); in short time, those nightmares start bleeding over into his waking life, and he comes to believe that the staff at Shutter Island is carrying out some kind of The Machurian Candidate-esque mind control experiments on its patients. While attempting to unravel the mystery, Teddy has to navigate a plethora of colorful characters, including the institution’s patients (Jackie Earle Haley, Robin Bartlett, and Christopher Dunham), doctors (Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow), and guards (American goddamn treasures John Carroll Lynch and Ted Levine).
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So blah blah blah, SPOILERS FOR A THIRTEEN-YEAR-OLD MOVIE, it turns out that Teddy is a patient on Shutter Island, and that he is Andrew Laeddis, that he killed his wife after she drowned their children and then retreated into a fantasy world so he wouldn’t have live with his guilt, and that this whole “investigation” has been an elaborate ruse to try and break him free from his delusions. In the end, he ostensibly tricks his doctors into lobotomizing him rather than face the truth of his situation, rhetorically asking his psychiatrist (also Ruffalo), "Is it better to live as a monster or to die a good man?" It’s clear, of course, that he believes it’s better to “die a good man,” giving Shutter Island a nihilistic bent not dissimilar from that of The Departed.
The ways in which we may choose easy fantasies over harsh realities is certainly fertile ground for storytelling - in fact, five months to the day after it released Shutter Island, Warner Bros. unveiled another, superior DiCaprio thriller focused on identical issues (and even a few eerily-similar plot points): Christopher Nolan’s Inception (Nolan also explored this issue in his breakthrough masterpiece, Memento).
But Shutter Island lacks both the thematic clarity and brain-teasing ambiguity of Inception (some people apparently think that DiCaprio’s character is, in fact, trapped in a government experiment at the end of Shutter Island, but I have no idea where they’re getting that from, other than wishful thinking). It’s much more interested in setting up its big final twist than it is exploring our self-imposed illusions - a second viewing of the film will make you aware that there is a LOT of dialogue where characters are surreptitiously telling Teddy precisely what’s going on - but there are also a lot of clues that are perhaps too clever for their own good (which is to say, I don’t know how anyone, including an actual U.S. Marshal, could ever possibly decipher them in advance of the concluding reveal).
Inception draws a direct connection between its protagonist and the notion of living in a mirage fairly early in the proceedings; the question “Is this guy lying to himself?” hangs over the entire film. But prior to its conclusion, Shutter Island only ever highlights this concept in relation to Rachel Solando… there’s just never really any reason to think this is something Teddy might be personally dealing with until the last fifteen minutes. Consequently, whereas Inception feels meaningful even without its inconclusive final shot, which suggests DiCaprio might still be dreaming, Shutter Island wouldn’t amount to much without its twist.
Meanwhile, there are myriad flashbacks to Teddy’s time at Dachau, but what the heck any of it has to do with his denial is never really made clear; we’re told he ignored the warning signs that his wife was depressed and potentially-dangerous because his PTSD lead him to drink, but that’s putting a hat on a hat. Teddy could just easily have been drinking for any number of reasons, or just because - for that matter, it could have been Teddy, unable to shake the horrors he has seen, who killed his own kids. This makes all the Holocaust imagery seem unnecessary and, therefore, somewhat exploitative. This is what I mean when I say Shutter Island often feels profound, even if it’s not necessarily profound - it has all these disparate elements, recognizable from “important” films, but never actually connects any of its dots.
Even the most intriguing aspect of the movie - the way it uses fire and water - is a tad confusing, and ultimately doesn’t amount to much. As noted by Screenrant’s Vic Holtreman:
“Fire is a symbol of Andrew/Teddy's reality in the movie. If you watch closely, every time Teddy is around fire - the matches he lights in Ward C, the fire in the cave with ‘Dr. Solando’ and when he blows up Dr. Cawley's car near the end - he suffers some sort of hallucination. Fire is the symbol of Andrew's fantasy world.
“In contrast, water (the opposite of fire) is the symbol of the reality of what happened to him. His wife drowns his children in water and it is water which makes Andrew so upset/uneasy/sick throughout the film. That's why the scene with ‘Dr. Solando’ takes place in the sea cave. She feeds the fantasy of the Shutter Island conspiracy as part of the ‘game’ intended to free Andrew. It's also why Andrew arrives on the island in a storm, by water - it's the symbolic ‘arrival’ from his traumatic past. Even the lighthouse operates as a symbol of what Andrew is going through, as it is so tied to navigating safely through dangerous waters.”
Except at one point, Teddy imagines Chuck’s dead body on the rocks at the bottom of a cliff, being washed over with crashing waves. It’s eventually clear that this was a hallucination, but it’s one devoid of any fire. Furthermore, we learn that his wife didn’t die in a fire, she started a fire in their apartment, and it killed no one. I can’t for the life of me figure out how that plays into the fire/water symbolism explained above; it seems to me that the metaphor sometimes kinda gets tossed aside in favor of narrative convenience.
(And P.S., I’m not even getting into the fact that portions of Shutter Island simply make no sense, even when they’re not fantasies. Why do any of the other patients go along with the role play in which Teddy and his doctors are involved? Why does anyone even bring up Ruffalo’s “missing” psychiatrist, thereby intensifying Teddy’s paranoia? Teddy tries to leave the island, but is thwarted by the hurricane - did they plan this whole thing specifically to occur during the hurricane? What would have happened if the storm had been less severe?)
Having said all of that: Shutter Island definitely has some good qualities. Unsurprisingly, the cast is terrific, as is the cinematography by The Aviator’s Robert Richardson and the editing by Scorsese regular Thelma Schoonmaker. The movie doesn’t have an original score, but it makes top-notch use of various pieces of music - most notably, works by Max Richter and Krzysztof Penderecki. And while I don’t find the movie particularly scary, I can see where it would seriously creep some people out.
But the movie is ultimately a trifle, a footnote in the careers of Scorsese, DiCaprio, and, for that matter, most of its prestigious supporting cast (I cannot imagine Williams or Ruffalo would have agreed to play these thankless roles for any other director). I would never tell anyone not to watch it, but I also would never tell anyone they had to watch it, y’know?
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