Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Laeta Kalogridis; based on Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
Cinematographer: Robert Richardson
Producer: Mike Medavoy, Arnold W. Messer, Bradley J. Fischer and Martin Scorsese
by Jon Cvack
As said in my thoughts on The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016), Identity (2003) is arguably the most disappointing movie of all time per the ratio of how good it is up to its final moments and we learn the last hundred minutes was all the hallucinations of a schizophrenia killer. After checking out Shutter Island for a third time, and yet again hoping I failed to notice the details, I’m ready to say that Shutter Island takes second place.
The first third of the film is A+ Scorsese filmmaking. Every time I watch the film it’s as though I’m having a flawless sensory massage. The story is brilliant in its simplicity - two US Marshals visit an Island on the eve of a hurricane in order to investigate a missing patient at a mental institution, with the added delight that one of the US Marshals suspects that the place is being run by American Nazis conducting experiments for the military.
Recently I read Rebecca (1938); a book with the most awfully misleading titles next to David Simon’s Show Me a Hero (2015). It’s the first time I grasped a particular genre - a type of modern Gothic thriller (I’m sure a more astute book lover could better categorize); a genre that Hitchcock would start with - involving a seemingly supernatural event occurring that would go on to have an explanation (Hitchcock would go on to win Best Picture for Rebecca’s adaptation).
Shutter Island seems to fit the same category; except rather than explaining away the supernatural, it has to explain away the extraordinary.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Officer Teddy Daniels; a WWII veteran who was amongst the soldiers who discovered the Dachau Nazi concentration camp and whose wife had recently burned alive in a fire. His partner is Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). They arrive at the island off Boston Harbor, discovering the hospital is actually an old civil war fortress; now guarding the criminally insane.
The place is run by lead psychiatrist Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley) who’s suspicious of their involvement and how far they wish to extend their investigation. Not remembering exactly what happened in the film, the one glimmer of hope I have of enjoying the movie is to give it another viewing remembering that Dr. John Cawley was in on the whole scam. Even by the third time, I kept thinking he was simply a proud man with the right connections that could make him smugly dissent from the US Marshals’ orders.
I’ll stop here to explain that the issue I have with whether this whole story was a performance, or whether Teddy imagines they’re just calling it a performance, or if Teddy’s suspicions were in fact accurate (NOTE: the book is definitive that it was an act). The problem is that in order to defend these positions each element in support of it must be sound; you can’t loose ends to support ambiguity. For instance, Crawley has denied them access to personnel and patient records and limits where they can go, which while odd, is understandable. He then grants access to at least some of the patients, which seems like a high risk for having at least one of them recognize Teddy and spill the beans; then again, one patient hands Teddy a piece of paper which tells him to RUN, such an ambiguous and cheap riddle that begs the question as to why the woman just couldn’t be more direct with Teddy. Giving him a note telling him to run seems just as consequential as telling him he’s all part of some ruse.
The men then move to examine Rachel Solando’s room (for those who forget, the name is ananagrams of both Teddy’s ex-wife Dolores Chanal and the arsonist and ex-military buddy of Teddy who killed her named, Andrew Laeddis). They find a note on the floor stating "The law of 4; who is 67?"; a cryptic and fascinating clue that again fails a stress test as to whether Teddy’s paranoid suspicions were true. The anagram is specifically designed for Teddy. “The Law of 4” wouldn’t apply to anything else (or least so far as I can see). “Who is 67?” is a pretty good puzzle; a question that seems obvious enough once figured out, logical for the doctors to provide, and mysterious enough for Teddy and us to have to piece together.
We learn that Rachel’s doctor was granted leave immediately after Rachel’s loss; told by a sexy nurse who I wondered whether an aspiring actress who didn’t give a shit about spilling the beans, or an actual nurse. Teddy and Chuck visit Crowley and his partner Dr. Jeremiah Naehring (Max von Sydow) in an absolutely brilliant scene. It’s a moment like this that balances between both sides of the reality. Naehring is deliberately cryptic, if not coming across mostly disinterested, while Teddy grows increasingly frustrated over their failure to comply, going so far as to suggest that Naehring might be a Nazi. The performances are spot on, and soon Teddy gets a migraine, and Robert Richardson’s signature light powers up to 11.
Teddy wakes up the next day and a storm has come in. They continue their investigation to discover that Rachel has returned, played by Emily Mortimer who breaks down in tears explaining what happened, going so far as to hug Teddy which again felt like a strange moment; whether real or not, why would Crowley allow a psychopath to endanger Teddy’s life and hug him, especially when the experiment was meant as a safer alternative to lobotomy?
By this point the film is now running on all cylinders and Teddy and Chuck head into the hospital’s cemetery where the storm reaches its apex; the wind breaking down trees and whipping branches in all directions. They end up in a crypt where Teddy explains how he thinks that the place is operating as a Nazi infilitrated experimental camp; supporting his thesis with experiences in Dachau and what they did to the prisoners.
At this point, it is a close to perfect movie; as because you don’t know what the ending is (or can’t remember) everything makes sense. Especially, for as crazy as it seems, Teddy’s suspicion isn’t impossible: the place could have been infiltrated by Nazis who’re running experiments on the criminally insane in order to create new weapons of warfare. Perhaps it’s my fandom of pop-WWII action movies (along with Wolfenstein), it seems like this was the perfect set up - Teddy would go on to prove his thesis, supported by the evidence.
It’s one of the few times I can recall the sensation of a film so strongly getting you excited for a certain plot and then turning a complete 180 in favor of a far more boring path. Identity is comparable. It’s plot wasn’t nearly as strong at the beginning. It was all a mystery. Shutter Island teases what could be a phenomenal and horrifying set up and instead abandons it for something plain and simply boring.
The second third isn’t as bad as I remember, as Teddy and Chuck return to the hospital, exchanging their suits for inmate uniforms. They soon take advantage of the chaos and make their way to cordoned Ward C, as the warden (Ted Levine), his officers, and the orderlies do their best to round up the patients and clean up the storm debris. It’s the area with the institutions most murderously insane. It’s a scene where you immediately recall Silence of the Lambs.
Teddy then sees a naked prisoner running down the hallways and leads Chuck to the labyrinth of corridors before the two finally part ways; leading Teddy to meet up with patient George Noyce (Jackie Earle Haley) who explains the experiment he runs on people. Referring toIMDb’s FAQ it’s says that he had been given orders to tell these lies; begging the question again as to 1) how did they get George memorize this much, 2) why would he go along with it, and 3) why wouldn’t he just explain that Teddy’s all part of the experiment (though to this last point, perhaps he doesn’t know who Teddy is, but then why does Teddy know him)?
Teddy soon finds Andrew Laeddis (Elias Koteas) in the cells - again, the man who allegedly killed his wife - and the two talk about the war and how Teddy left him or something. I honestly can’t remember the details and this is the exact point we shift into the final and crushing last third of the film as Teddy then leaves, meets up with Chuck and the two try to reach the famous lighthouse.
En route, Teddy sees a fire and climbs down into a cave where he meets the allegedly real Rachel Salando (now played by Patricia Clarkson) who essentially shatters the film’s ambiguity. This second Salando mentions she’s a former doctor and corroborates the experiments Teddy suspected and she’s now been living in the wild, bouncing from place to place to hide and one day escape; although the area is crawling with guards on the search; an idea so outlandish that we immediately grasp that Teddy is likely hallucinating everything.
Teddy makes his way to the lighthouse where he discovers Dr. Crowley alone up top. He explains that the whole event was a game designed to repair his mind. Everyone was in on it, from the first Rachel Solando to the nurses and guards. Teddy refuses to believe, grabs his gun and discovers it’s plastic (another problem; as imagine if he actually needed to use it such as when Rachel grabs him). Chuck then arrives, now wearing a nice suit and reveals himself as Teddy’s therapist. There’s a meltdown and another migraine and Teddy passes out. He later awakes and admits to what he did and in a horrifying flashback we see Teddy admit the “truth” of Dolores’ death was that when he arrived home years ago, he found his wife had drowned their three children. Teddy then shot her dead. A mix of that and the holocaust completely destroyed his mind.
By the end, what I recalled as having such fairly strong subjectivity played out far differently. Teddy grabs a smoke on the hospital steps. Chuck joins him and Teddy plays it cool, lowering his voice and explaining that they need to find a way off the island. Counter to the first two viewings, it was a far more somber and objective moment. Chuck looks over to Crawley, shaking his head, signaling that Teddy hasn’t been cured and will likely need a lobotomy.
I wonder if another viewing with the details still fresh while knowing that it’s all a Fincher-like ruse might make it more interesting. Then again, I just find this such a heartbreaking film to watch. Set up for a grand slam and ending without a single run. It seems odd to consider that we’re essentially being entertained with a story of the complete mental breakdown of an extremely disturbed man. Especially when it didn’t even cure him. It’s a film that I hope gets remade some day; following the other angle in having him follow the evil in men’s hearts rather exploiting the sickness in a man’s head. As we say to those we love most, it's not bad movie, it's just disappointing.
BELOW: Even knowing none of this mattered, still takes me to the edge of my seat every time
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