Film Review: “Shutter Island” ★★★★★(5/5)

Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) walks the dark empty hallway of a mental institution. The tiny flame of his match goes off. He lights another one. A couple of minutes later a man behind bars tells him “Don’t you get it? You’re a rat in a maze.” So is the viewer.“Shutter Island” is a psychological thriller unlike any I have ever seen. It is also probably the most atmospheric thriller you will see all year.  

The year is 1954. US Marshall Teddy Daniels and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) arrive at Shutter Island after their ferry breaks through a mysterious mist. The island is an institution for the mentally or criminally insane.  One patient has escaped and their task is to investigate the matter. As Teddy digs deeper into his investigation, he loses control of it. Soon he is not sure of what or whom he is investigating, as the investigator becomes the investigated. One thing he does know is this, there is no escaping the island. The patient could not have escaped because he soon discovers he cannot escape as well. There is a secret behind this island; both the viewer and the main character feel that from the start.

 I could not help but admire Scorsese’s control over every element in this film. I saw similarities to the brilliant “Eyes Wide Shut”. Yes, both are entirely different films but with both, the viewer takes a journey through the mind of the main character. We see what he sees, we feel what he feels and we eventually reach the truth through his eyes. A psychological thriller if there ever was one, “Shutter Island” will keep you guessing until the very end. At times, the flame will brighten the situation and in a split second, you will be back in the dark, lost, confused and desperate to figure out what it is about this island that feels so wrong.

 The film depends on a twist. It is not until after that twist that a masterpiece emerges. “Shutter Island” is a motion picture that demands repeated viewings. Prior to this movie, the only Scorsese film considered a film noir is his 1976 classic, “Taxi Driver”. While “Taxi Driver” is a psychological neo-noir, “Shutter Island” has a more traditional noir feel to it. We have our cigarette-smoking investigator, the complicated mystery, the low-key lighting and the rainy weather.

It is extremely difficult to discuss a film that relies so much on its ending without spoiling the whole film. For this is one of those films that generate conversations after the initial viewing. I know that I will be returning to the doomed island in the near future, and once I do, I will be judging with a more careful eye. I will take note of certain aspects that slipped my mind as a first time viewer. It is the duty of a film critic to let you know what to expect without spoiling the film. Therefore, I will do my best in the coming sentences to let you know what it is that you are in for without revealing any spoilers.

You will start out a tiny fish swimming in a pond. As the plot thickens, you evolve into the angler who keeps an eye on the confused fish. By the end of the film, the viewer becomes the person standing on the rock studying the angler who himself is studying the fish. In other words, you may get lost. You may not be aware of what is happening during the duration of the film but as the film goes on, you get glimpses of the bigger picture and eventually you reach it.

What you make out of the truth of the matter will determine your opinion. I can only speak for myself. I was both dazzled and astonished by how Scorsese managed to keep me blindfolded for so long without having me lose interest. “Shutter Island” is nothing short of a cinematic masterpiece, a journey into a character’s mind, a mystery within another mystery, an open door to a mastermind at work.

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25 responses to this post.

  1. […] Film Review: “Shutter Island” ***** (5/5) « The Cinephile Fix: Oscar Buzz, Film Th… […]

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  2. * Spoilers * (Don’t read if you haven’t seen this film)

    My opinion of this movie changed a great deal during the process of watching it. Almost immediately I was dreading the possibility of the “it’s actually all in his head” endings. After about 45 minutes I sort of stopped caring about that because I was enjoying how well the story was being told. Then, of course, came the “it’s all in his head” ending. It kind of left a bad taste in my mouth when I left the theater but as the days went by I found myself thinking about the film with more and more fondness.

    While I suppose ‘Shutter Island’ does, technically, have a twist ending it isn’t like almost all other twist ending films. Most of them have all of their eggs in that one basket and, because of that, the film ends up being simply as good as the twist. What separates ‘Shutter Island’ is that you know what the twist ending is before it happens but the the weight of the film isn’t resting on fooling you. It’s such a rich story that is so well told that you actually don’t care that you saw the ending coming.

    And I agree with you that this film warrants repeated viewings. This was almost like watching a Hitchcock film, Scorsese at his best.

    Reply

    • I agree, the more I think of this movie, the more I like it. I found it most similar to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”. Not as good obviously but still I can imagine people reacting the same way to “Vertigo”‘s twist ending decades ago.

      Best Regards,
      Wael Khairy

      Reply

  3. Posted by Chris on March 11, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    Vertigo has no twist ending as far as I know. As for Shutter island I feel that a second viewing would make it collapse completely. The references to Kubrick are apt for the use of the music by Ligeti and Penderecki, like in The shining. The latters third symphony was overused in my opinion.

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    • “Vertigo” has no twist ending? Did we watch the same film? A second viewing will make you appreciate “Shutter Island” more. Scorsese isn’t a director who invests and wastes his time all for the audience to be caught off guard. He’s much more than that. He’s an auteur.

      I personally thought the score was very fitting.

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      • Posted by Chris on March 12, 2010 at 6:03 pm

        There is a twist in Vertigo, but hardly in the end. Scorsese might have been an auteur many years ago, as far as it is possible to be so in the US, but that is hardly the case now.

        As for the music I was irritated maybe because I know some of the pieces very well. He started out using the same excerpts from Ligetis Lontano that Kubrick used in The Shining. Then I think he overused the same chords from Pendereckis passacaglia from the third symphony to an almost ridiculous degree. I think the review in the New York Times described that and other problems in the film very well.

      • While I do agree that Scorsese was far better back in the 70’s and 80’s. He’s still nothing short of magnificent today. You can’t compare Scorsese with Scorsese at his best. As for the music, maybe the fact that I don’t know the musical excerpts so well made it a haunting an effective experience for me. But I can see how that may be annoying to someone who know the music too well.

  4. I’m reading Dennis Lehane’s book and will probably finish reading it before the release date in South Korea(3/18). From you description of the movie and the book itself, I’m expecting something not so far from “Bringing Out the Dead”. But I keep my mind open till I watch the movie just like any other cases.

    P.S.
    Here is some amusing review about the score for “The Hurt Locker”.
    http://www.filmtracks.com/titles/hurt_locker.html

    Reply

    • I hear the book is really good too. I saw some pictures of it’s adaptation into a graphic novel and I know I’ll be purchasing that soon. The film looks a bit like “Bringing Out the Dead” in a visual aspect but in terms of content it’s very different and unlike anything Scorsese ever did. He’s breaking new ground with this movie.

      “The Hurt Locker”‘s score is very depressing indeed. I don’t think I’ll be listening to it though.

      Reply

  5. Posted by Sheila King on March 13, 2010 at 4:13 am

    This film will be discussed and I think attain a much higher position with more viewings and the passage of time. I’ve now seen it 3 times and can honestly say that it was better each time. I love it. It’s probably the first film of Scorsese’s that I’ve actually loved since the days of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. Some really good film critics have had some excellent discussions on the film, it’s meanings, and why the twist is so interesting (the last words in the film). The music is one of the best things about it. And I never felt it was overdone, either. Most of the time (with a few understandable exceptions) it was there sort of subtly in the background to create atmosphere (a nice complement to the psychology surrounding the story). The New York Times review was a butcher job by a usually good critic, AO Scott, who very obviously both misread the film and completely misinterpreted Scorsese’s intentions and then went off the deep end attacking anyone who might like this film or give it a good review as being some sort of Scorsese “whore”. His review and that of David Edelstein of New York Mag were both dead off the mark and I do feel extremely confident in that opinion now. I never call a film a masterpiece unless it’s had some time to sink in and I won’t do that here, but I think this has enough richness to be a kind of higher watermark than much of what Scorsese has done in the last 2 decades. Beautiful, at times moving, wonderfully acted all ’round, layered with as much texture as I’ve seen in any film recently, with most of Scorsese’s pet themes intact, it’s going to be discussed and argued over….that’s a sign of a “real” piece of cinema. When people don’t have much to say about a film is when filmmakers should worry.

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    • Finally! Someone who agrees with me a hundred %. The problem with most critics is that they saw the twist and set their minds to bash it without taken a deeper look into that last line which completley changes everything we saw or more precisely everything we think we know. It’s one of those lines that will go down in cinema history as one of the greatest last lines in a film. To be honest, I never thought Scorsese actually lost his touch. People judge him for films like “Gangs of New York” when it was clearly better than that year’s Best Picture winner, “Chicago”.

      “Shutter Island” and ” The Aviator” are my favorite two Scorsese films of the past decade. I agree that this is one of those films that will be analyzed in the upcoming years. I remember when “Fight Club” first came out and everyone was hating on it. A year or two later it was on everyone’s greatest films list. The same goes for probably every Stanley Kubrick film ever made, including two of my favorites, “Eyes Wide Shut” and “2001: A Space Odyseey”. Can you believe “The Shining” won Razzies the year it came out?

      Anyway, I now know why the film was released so early and not during Oscar season. It needs to sink in, people need to rewatch it over and over again, discuss it, debate about it, and finally come to this conclusion: “Shutter Island” may very well be one of the greatest films of the past decade.

      Reply

  6. *Spoilers ahead*

    Hey Wael,

    The film could have copped out. In fact, I even rolled my eyes as Ben Kingsley’s character first revealed the psychiatric experiment to DiCaprio at the lighthouse. But the stellar performances in this film truly overshadow any chance it had of becoming a cliche. We begin to quickly understand – both literally and artistically – just exactly why everyone’s been acting the way they did. This is a calculated and executed ensemble effort. Then something else happened: any doubts, negative reactions I had to the film earlier for what seemed to be inconsistencies in plot, later transformed into truly beautiful moments, which makes it work on two levels: as a psychological thriller and as a suspense film, and that’s just the surface. Best example: DiCaprio’s performance in the scene in which he and his “partner” Mark Ruffalo are interviewing one of the insane on the island. The bits with his dead wife, as well, become not just “haunting scenes” for the sake of haunting us, they are character motivation. And the revelation at the film’s climax – which is up for debate – is fascinating in demonstrating both Scorsese’s understanding of character psyche and his way of showing it with a homage to film noir. Teddy’s character is so hell-bent on being the hero in his own imagined story, that when reality hits it cannot be absorbed. Therein lies the true genius of an entertaining and fulfilling work, and I believe this is Scorsese’s most successful outing in exploring the theme of that notion of the blurring of fiction vs. nonfiction (when and where does the fantasy stop and the reality begin?) something he has always discussed as a template for his most inspired work. The case here is simply that it existed on a more heightened, imaginative level. The realism is there and throughout, but it chooses to expose itself with the strength of the ending. Definitely worth multiple viewings. I’ll also add that this is perhaps DiCaprio’s best performance to date working with Scorsese.

    Best,
    Max

    Reply

    • Hi Max,

      Here lies the genius of this film. It contains one of those spot on last lines that changes everything. I believe DiCaprio’s Performance was better in “The Aviator”. However, I do believe “Shutter Island” is the better picture overall. It’s one of those films that’ll make you scratch your head after every viewing. I look forward to a second, third, and so forth viewing. It’s quite interesting how many people have interpeted the last line, or shall I say misinterpeted. That’s the beauty of it. We can all put the pieces of the puzzel together but we’ll always end up with one missing piece which will lead us to build an entirely different puzzel.

      Best Regards,
      Wael Khairy

      Reply

  7. I just came back from ‘Shutter Island’ & I really enjoyed the movie a dark and taught psychological thriller that grabbed me from start to finish. It was a stylish movie with fine performances from all involved particularly Kingsley, Ruffalo & DiCaprio, who seems to have grown in stature as an actor since he became Martys leading man (hardly surprising I suppose).. I thought the score worked well, never overbearing but building tension,suspense & the odd bit of humor too .

    Saying all that my wife didn’t like it at all, she thought it was too long, too predictable and far too stylized and she accused me only liking it because Scorsese directed it.. I defended my position vigorously over a curry afterwards.. Okay it wasn’t Goodfellas, Taxi Driver or Raging Bull (but lets face it what is) but it was still a classy movie, but she did get me thinking that I undoubtedly do watch Scorsese films wanting to like them but lets face it Marty is probably one of the main reasons we all love movies so much and I’m always going to cut him some slack…But you hardly ever have to and Shutter Island was no exception…

    Reply

    • Very well said Simon 🙂

      Scorsese is always compared to Scorsese at his best. That’s the main problem. He still produces great films compared to other filmmakers nowadays…Also, Orson Welles was never able to top “Citizen Kane” but his films were never below average. I agree that DiCaprio is shaping up to be one of the great ones. I also loved Ryffalo’s performance. I’m shocked that I didn’t mention that in my review!

      Reply

  8. […] Ebert and, most importantly of all, Touching From A Distance guest contributor – has written a challenging (and blessedly spoiler-free) celebration of ‘Shutter Island’, in which he describes being ‘dazzled and astonished by … a cinematic […]

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  9. Definitely the most atmospheric film I’ve seen in 2010. Leonardo Di Caprio gave a really great performance, as did Ruffalo but, as you say, one of the most striking aspects of this film is the visual side of it. It’s been over a week since I watched it and I keep thinking back on it. The ending is being interpreted in different ways by each viewer, which adds an element of mystery to it! Di Caprio did a great job at bringing believe emotion to the character which, in my opinion, is a first for him. Although Michelle Williams had a small part, she was surprisingly good and stepped outside of the normal type of role that she plays. Defintiely my favourite thing about this film was the ambience throughout.

    Great blog!

    Reply

    • Yes the atmosphere of every scene was vital for the plot. I can still see some images and scenes fresh in my memory even though I walked out of the screening weeks ago.

      Thanks for the blog compliment 🙂 It’s always a pleasure to find another cinephile 🙂

      What other films have you enjoyed thus far this year? Your taste seems like that of an intellectual. Afterall, you enjoyed “Shutter Island” while a large amount of people didn’t simply because they misinterpeted the film or didn’t like Scorsese catching them off-guard.

      Reply

  10. The twist for me echoed “Memento” in an eerily similar way, and I think I saw it coming (not to be a smart-aleck or anything…). Yes, this film was good in parts, especially leading up to the twist, but I didn’t appreciate the twist.

    Maybe I should go back now knowing that Scorcese borrowed extensively from Michael Powell (there are a great many references to “Black Narcissus”). One amazing shot was that pan when the soldiers performed the execution in the “Liberation of Dachau” section. That was one of the best shots Scorcese has ever pulled off, and easily the film’s best moment for me. I was shocked.

    Reply

    • Nick, the shot you refer to was breathtaking. It was so in your face and powerful. I was speechless. Thanks for reminding me of it.

      I also think that “Shutter Island” was highly influenced by “Vertigo” in terms of how the plot unraveled.

      Reply

  11. […] actor, but of late, I find a bit of sameness in the way he pursues his craft, movie after movie. Shutter Island, The Departed, Body of Lies and now Inception, one would notice that there is a pattern in his […]

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    • I’m not saying he’s as great as say Robert De Niro, but you can’t deny he’s shaping up to have one hell of filmography under his belt. By the way, I thought his best performance was in “The Aviator”.

      Reply

  12. To be quite honest, I detested the movie, right from the start, from the very stereotyped image of the steamboat in the fog. It does not seem like Scorcese at all. Having seen Vertigo, and admired it, I cannot see any parallel. Of course Vertigo does have a masterly twist, but this movie is fishy right from the opening “foghorn in the fog” onwards. The plot is pointlessly convoluted. Good Dr Kingsley has hired a whole army of extras and rented an island and tutored them in an elaborate drama to help dear Capprio out of his post holocaust trauma. Difficult to think of a mental disease like the one portrayed or any psychiatrist in his right mind coming up with a cure like this. Well, all’s well that ends well. But I really wonder Ebert gave it three and a half. The A O Scott review is on the dot.Your image of the fish, the angler and the observer is apt as a metaphor and ultimately, at least in a certain class of movies, confusion seems it’s own justification.

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    • “Vertigo” is ultimately the better film. No questions about it, but the sterotypical images in “Shutter Island” were fun because Scorsese knew what he was doing and therefore these images looked perfectly constructed almost as if it wasn’t done by a force of nature. These spotless images while stereotypical, it’s Scorsese playing with our expectations, and Teddy’s psychological state. Could it be that we see what he sees as in point-of-view shots and therefore the fake world in Teddy’s head seems too stereotypically polished? Maybe, but isn’t it interesting?

      Also, if you don’t like the mental disease or think it sounds made up, well…there’s always the other side of the coin, you can argue that Teddy IS sane. As I like to think.

      I will say that I perfectly understand you not liking the movie. I thought it was ok up to the very end. After the twist ending, I found myself mentally working around its flaws, and questioned whether all of them were there intentionally. This forced me to watch the film again and again-it kept getting better. Trust me, give it another try. 🙂

      Reply

      • We are possibly talking of different things or using different yardsticks. Of course, comparison of Scorcese with Scorcese or Scorcese with Hitchcock is not the right comparison. A movie has to stand on it’s own feet. I think a movie has to enrich us in some way to justify the time we invest. I think this one was far too artificial in it’s construction, far too devoid of authentic content. The people are not real people and their problems are not problems we can identify with. Just being bizarre is not enough. I felt both the psychology and the much hyped “atmospherics” were pseudo and downright fake. I don’t see myself seeing it again. I didn’t feel it worth the effort of reviewing and this is the nearest I have got to reviewing it. But your review is interesting, certainly much more than the film.

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