On February 19th, 2010 Shutter Island ferried it’s way into the world shrouded in mystery and atmosphere. In some ways, 2010 was mere moments ago. In others, it seems like a distant memory coated with a thin layer of dust. So much has changed over the last 10 years, and yet so much remains the same. When Shutter Island was initially released, I personally was going through a ‘black hole’ moment in my life. You know, those times when life hands you a set of difficult circumstances that causes you retreat from society at large.
As I drank and danced my way through an emotional divorce, movies, news, pop culture and more slipped past me in an alcohol-induced fog. It would take years for me to discover Shutter Island, but when I did, I found it’s intoxicating spell as potent and haunting as ever. Let’s take a trip, and look back (spoiler-free) on this incredible film and the powerful secrets it holds within its frames.
“…as potent and haunting as ever.”
Directed by Martin Scorsese, Shutter Island retains a unique place in the storied director’s career. Nestled in between The Departed and Hugo, many aspects hearken back to Scorsese’s past, while others look firmly forward. For instance, while the film retains Scorsese’s familiar focus on flawed male characters, it does so in a slightly different way. Looking at his overall filmography, the vast majority of Scorsese’s films are placed firmly in reality. Yes, that reality may be a crime-riddled New York, but a reality none the less. The world in which each specific story takes place is one that could potentially exist without too much stretching of one’s imagination. Characters behave in grounded ways and the world around them is one we as audiences can relate too. However, Shutter Island plays by a different set of rules.
From the moment Teddy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) first lay their eyes on the fog-drenched island, the surreal and otherworldly atmosphere of Ashecliffe Hospital is evident. This island, this place, is separated literally and figuratively from the world we, and Teddy, are familiar with. As the film progresses, what is real and what is not shifts like sand through fingers. As soon as one thing seems certain, another begins to peek its head in the door. Holding out until the final moments, Scorsese plays with characters and audiences alike, keeping reality elusively at bay.
Hand in hand with this idea comes the unclear nature of Shutter Island‘s antagonist. For many Scorsese films, the role of protagonist is often clearly and easily definable. We certainly may not always agree with the protagonist’s actions, but it is there that intrigue and interest lies. However, things are not always so obvious when it comes to Shutter Island‘s antagonists. In the beginning of the film, we see Teddy firmly believe that mischief is afoot on the island in dark and terrifying ways. As his investigation deepens into Ashecliffe‘s practices, patients and motives, he uncovers much more than he ever anticipated. Following in the footsteps of films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The King of Comedy, Teddy becomes his own biggest obstacle. Suddenly, and tragically, we see the Shutter Island antagonists shift from arsonists and secret-keeping mad scientist-like doctors to Teddy‘s own grief, trauma and repressed guilt.
This shift in both story and character role is expertly and beautifully executed by Scorsese. Shutter Island is a film that could have easily been told terribly. By giving away too much, too soon, the whole world Dennis Lehane created in his original novel would have sunk sadly into the sea. Luckily for us, this was not the case. Scorsese has always been vocal for his love and admiration of those masters of cinema that came before him. In Shutter Island, we see him cherry-pick the best parts and create an effective visual tribute to those who inspire his outwardly darker side.
“In Shutter Island, we see [Scorcese] create an effective visual tribute to those who inspire his outwardly darker side.”
The last film Scorsese shot on actual film, the lighting, production design and atmosphere of Shutter Island ooze Mario Bava (Blood and Black Lace, Black Sabbath) and Val Lewton (Cat People, Isle of the Dead). Ashecliffe and the surrounding island nod with reverence to the Gothic castles and haunted houses of horror cinema’s past. Practical lighting effects are utilized to not only hint at Teddy‘s fracturing mental state, but to provide a genuine cue for both audience and actors alike. Shot after shot, edit after edit, bow down to Hitchcock in both tone and technical execution. Even the film’s soundtrack cannot escape with it’s similarity in style and execution to Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece, The Shining. Learning from dark cinema’s past, Scorsese infuses these influences into his own unique psychological horror film noir. Perhaps it’s due to these deliberate and obvious tributes that Shutter Island visually stands slightly apart from the crowd of Scorsese films. Perhaps it’s also due to these influences that it still resonates with such dark and discerning appeal.
In the process of researching this article I was surprised to find so many incredibly polarizing reviews upon the film’s initial 2010 release. On one side, there were critics like Roger Ebert who appreciated and applauded the film. “And that’s what the movie is about,’ Ebert extolled, “-atmosphere, ominous portents, the erosion of Teddy’s confidence and even his identity. It’s all done with flawless directorial command. Scorsese has fear to evoke, and he does it with many notes.”
And on the other side of the camp, there were critics who found the film an excessive exercise in cinematic indulgence. For example, The Guardian’s initial review called Shutter Island “a cinematic sledgehammer for a pretty small nut.” However, most of the real complaints had little to do with Scorsese’s talent, the cast, or the technical execution of the film. When everything was all boiled down, the majority of issues stemmed from the journey that Teddy takes. We all know everyone processes grief differently and critical response to the film seemed to mirror that sentiment in spades. And here is where that aforementioned black hole I fell into comes back into play.
As 2010 audiences watched Teddy frantically peeling back layers of Shutter Island’s mysteries on screen, I was likely several drinks deep in a dark and smokey bar on a weekday night. While these two parallel stories may seem dissimilar, they are indeed connected. Throughout Shutter Island‘s entire run time, we watch a man processing, acknowledging, and struggling to make sense of his own grief, trauma and mental stability. While some critics and audiences found issue with Teddy‘s journey to self-discovery, others found beauty. Some saw the film as frivolous, disjointed and nothing but a veritable sea of red herrings. Others watched Teddy traverse the various stages of acceptance with tinges of self-recognition and familiarity. Truly, at the end of the day, Shutter Island is a story of a man working his way through his own personal hell the best way he knows how. Just like I was.
“While the seas of time are not always kind to films, the grief at the core of Shutter Island‘s story is as old as time itself.”
It’s often been said that there’s no right or wrong way to grieve and Shutter Island embodies that idea. For Teddy, the reality of his life was simply too much for him to mentally bear, so he unconsciously chose denial and distraction to the upmost degree. I also chose these options…but on a much smaller, more deliberate scale. And yet, at some point we both faced the same choice; continue with the delusion? Or face it head on? After all, there’s only one way out of Shutter Island. Once this choice is laid at Teddy‘s feet, Shutter Island transcends it’s identity as a just a bit of rock out in the ocean and suddenly becomes a manifestation of Teddy‘s mental and emotional state. By acknowledging and properly processing his trauma, he can leave the island he created in his mind. Or, he can choose to stay forever trapped within its rocky shores.
There’s no question that with Shutter Island, Scorsese crafted a beautiful film with excellent examples of technical craft and merit. While the seas of time are not always kind to films, the grief at the core of Shutter Island‘s story is as old as time itself. Years after the film’s release, I watched it for the first time and found myself recognizing pieces of my own emotional grief process in Teddy’s. In that recognition, I felt not only an intense tug of the heartstrings but an odd catharsis. There’s a sad beauty in knowing that Teddy‘s story is one that will resonate through time, but it’s also the beauty of film.
Movies help us process, confront and acknowledge our emotions in very real and visceral ways. While our stories may (hopefully) never come too close to Teddy‘s tale, there is still much to be gained from it. As an eternal student and film lover, this fact was certainly not lost on Scorsese. So while Shutter Island‘s Hitchcock tributes and lighting techniques are truly lovely, perhaps its greatest nod, its most authentic strength, lies in Teddy and his powerful journey through grief, guilt and trauma.
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