To the Lighthouse: Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese is long past the point of having to prove himself. Having finally won his long-overdue Oscar, it seems he can pretty much do whatever he wants (if he couldn’t already). That freedom has led him to the enigmatic Shutter Island, the premise of which almost seems beneath the giant in whose hands it is delivered: and yet it’s because of those hands that the movie works so well. Drawing on uniformly brilliant performances from his cast, stunning cinematography, and his own incomparable skills as a director, Scorsese has woven together a thriller as intricate as it is haunting.

Adapted from the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name, Shutter Island is the story of Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), two U.S. Marshals who, in 1954, are sent to the remote Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where a patient has somehow escaped. (Lehane’s work is also behind such recent successes as Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone.) It’s clear from the onset that Teddy and Chuck are seen as nuisances at best, intruders at worst: they’re met with a lack of cooperation bordering on outright hostility, forced to surrender their firearms, and have trouble getting a straight answer out of anyone. What’s also clear is that Teddy isn’t that stable himself: he’s haunted by the death of his wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) in a fire, and prone to migraines, seasickness, and dreams bordering on hallucinations. He’s also determined to “blow the lid off” Ashecliffe, about which he’d made up his mind long his arrival on Shutter Island.

The cast is full of heavyweights–everyone from DiCaprio and Ruffalo to Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Max von Sydow, and Jackie Earl Haley is in this movie–all of whom give solid and even memorable performances. DiCaprio, who may be Hollywood’s most reliable and interesting leading man, is great as always; too, the oft-overlooked Ruffalo, who never gets as much recognition as he deserves, shines as well. One is reminded of his similarly strong portrayal of David Toschi in 2007’s Zodiac, a great film that had the disadvantage of being released early in a year filled with more good movies than any other in recent memory.

Shutter Island looks just how it feels: dark, haunting, beautiful. Its dream sequences–which can so easily be trite–are among the most effective I can recall seeing. The same can be said of the film’s flashbacks: the visuals here are especially rich and vivid. Everything from shots of a lakeside house to Dachau concentration camp is given a dreamlike treatment that provokes awe and horror in equal measure.

This is a movie that touches on subjects as far-reaching as Nazism, the nature of violence and torture (at times, the film almost seems a meditation on the current debate in America on the use of waterboarding), and religion; ultimately, however, Shutter Island is a closed system: it’s about the labyrinthine inner workings of the human mind, from dream states to repression back to memory again. Its concern is more with why rather than what, and with good reason: why is far more interesting. Characters are prone to philosophize with one another rather than converse, and even this is surprisingly well-done. The same can be said of the twist ending, which is predictable in hindsight but handled with such maturity that it seems less of a twist than an inevitable conclusion. DiCaprio’s best work comes in these last few moments.

Here is a thriller of the highest order, akin to such classics within the genre as The Silence of the Lambs and Memento, and one that nobody else could have put together. Its imperfections are few, and Scorsese has done well to venture into this territory: Shutter Island will stand as a gripping thriller for years to come, perhaps even more so after the initial shock of its conception has worn off. Anyone eager for another crime drama from Scorsese will likely be satisfied within the next few years, and Shutter Island raises questions as troubling as any others he’s asked. “Which do you think would be worse,” Daniels says to Chuck near the end of the film, “to die as a monster or to live as a good man?” Chuck can’t answer in time–can we?


Michael Nordine studies literature and philosophy at Bennington College. His fiction and essays have appeared in Silo, plain china, Nutmeg Unit, and One Leaf, and his as-yet untitled collection of short stories will be completed in the spring. He divides his time between Vermont and California.

    • MystiqueProphecy
    • February 21st, 2010

    This movie made me sad. 😦

    • Jais K Alphonse
    • June 30th, 2010

    Hi… ain’t it “it’s better to die as a good man, than to live as a monster”?


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