Sunday, February 21, 2010

Identity Crisis: Shutter Island

(Warning: It’s impossible to discuss this film substantively without revealing – early, frequently and explicitly – its secrets. Spoilers abound.)

It takes only one glimpse of Shutter Island to be filled with a sense of doom. An unwelcoming rock with sheer cliff faces around most of its perimeter, the titular setting of Martin Scorsese’s latest film is a grim and foreboding place even before the storm rolls in, even before one lays eyes on the island’s only edifice – a sprawling prison for the criminally insane. Historically, Shutter Island inspires thoughts of Alcatraz. Cinematically, it’s a delightfully twisted romper room of gothic horrors. Practically, it’s the perfect basket in which to hold a few dozen rotten eggs, to protect the world from them and them from the world, and perhaps to conduct some illicit psychological experiments, too. More than all of that, though, Shutter Island is a symbol, a physical depiction of what it means to be insane – to be locked in, removed and incapable of escape.

It’s this kind of visual storytelling that Scorsese does well in his adaptation of a novel by Dennis Lehane. Shutter Island is, at its best, a psychological thriller in the mold of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – one that’s notable less for the way it plays with our minds than for the way it explores the fragile mental state of its main character. It’s only appropriate then that Scorsese quotes those films with regularity, from its use of twisting vertical stairways that ascend toward madness to its vibrant dream sequences. And yet for all the ways that Shutter Island is cinematically rich, it is also dramatically flawed. It isn’t enough for Scorsese to try to emulate Hitchcock and Kubrick. He tries to emulate M. Night Shyamalan, too. More to the point, Scorsese tries to examine madness and conceal it at the same time, which is close to impossible. The result is a film that is most fascinating in retrospect, except that in retrospect Shutter Island also feels like an uninspiring cliché. There’s the rub.

I suppose I should pause here and mention that I was on to Shutter Island’s twist conclusion the first time Leonardo DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels pops aspirin in the office of prison administrator Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), some 15-20 minutes into the film. I wasn’t looking for the twist. In fact, I had no reason to doubt the story at face value. But even though I’m unfamiliar with Lehane’s novel, I am of course familiar with Vertigo, The Manchurian Candidate, The Sixth Sense, Mulholland Dr. and so many other films in which things aren’t exactly what they seem. At that early point in the film, I couldn’t possibly have predicted exactly how the story ends, and my Scrabble skills aren’t so fine-tuned that I decoded the names of Rachel Solando and Andrew Laeddis. But from almost the very beginning I presumed the entire story was a hallucination, and, as far as the mystery was concerned, that was that. To Scorsese’s credit, there were moments, even near the conclusion, when I thought – er, hoped – that I’d be proven wrong. But, in the end, the story went almost exactly where I thought it would.

So while I recognize that Shutter Island will provide some with the exhilarating free-fall experience that happens when – wham! – all at once the plot’s core mystery gets flipped upside down (or it is right side up?), I missed out on that rush. And yet Shutter Island doesn’t disappoint because of all that I knew ahead of time but because of all that I didn’t know as the story unfolded. Read that again. Here’s where we return to Vertigo. In the novel upon which that film is based (D’Entre Les Morts), the secret of the female’s dual identity isn’t revealed until the end. In the film, however, Hitchcock resolves the Madeleine/Judy mystery almost as soon as Judy is introduced. By revealing this secret to the audience, Vertigo stops being a rather straightforward mystery about Madeleine/Judy in order that it can become a complex psychological examination of Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie as he tries to turn Judy into Madeleine, unaware (at first) that they are in fact the same person.

Scorsese would have been wise to follow suit. While Shutter Island is littered with clues that point to its ultimate destination, the audience is never given enough information to appreciate the film’s true cinematic depth. Isn’t it more interesting, for example, to watch Teddy scaling the cliffs of Shutter Island if we know, unequivocally, that he’s crawling over the hard edges of his hallucinations, rather than wondering when the U.S. Marshall became such a skilled free-climber? Isn’t it more interesting to know that Teddy constantly encounters water because it directly relates to his psychological trauma, and not because Scorsese is lazily following the J-horror handbook? Isn’t it more interesting to watch Teddy’s patient interrogations and understand why he seems as crazed as those on the other side of the table? As Teddy, DiCaprio gives an intense and committed performance that is somewhat undermined by all that we don’t know. The false story of Teddy, haunted by his past and determined to solve the mystery of the missing patient, is less interesting than the truth: a man so emotionally crippled that he, like Scottie before him, creates an elaborate fantasy in order to find peace. Sure, it’s interesting to watch Teddy teetering on the edge of sanity, but Scorsese never gives us an overpowering moment like the one in Vertigo when Scottie watches Judy emerge from the bathroom, having completed her transformation into Madeleine, and Scottie’s last grasp of reality evaporates before our eyes. Or, rather, Scorsese does give us those moments, but he camouflages them so that we can’t appreciate their deepest meaning as they’re unfolding.

The shame of this approach is that when it comes time for Scorsese’s film to reveal its truths, they require so many words, words, words (including words on an easel) to explain. This not only puts Shutter Island at the opposite end of the twist spectrum from The Sixth Sense, which delivers its revelations quickly, effortlessly and powerfully with a series of images, it also distances the film from its very strength – visual storytelling. Despite some curiously overlong scenes that could have been shortened or altogether removed, Shutter Island is mostly engaging, thanks in large part to strong casting (from Kingsley to Mark Ruffalo to Max von Sydow to Jackie Earle Haley) and Scorsese’s knack for creating the appropriate atmosphere. But it’s telling that DiCaprio’s performance is at its most powerful in the film’s final flashback. Until then, Teddy doesn’t know who he is. And, unfortunately, neither do we.


Richard Bellamy said...

Well done - and I agree with your assessment here. I was underwhelmed and disappointed due to a number of factors you note here. I will be posting my own response on my blog - which I wrote BEFORE reading your review, and we come to some of the same conclusions.

To Scorsese’s credit, there were moments, even near the conclusion, when I thought – er, hoped – that I’d be proven wrong. That was my experience too - to the point of actually articulating out loud, "No, no, no, no!"

Love your comparisons with Vertigo - the first thing I thought of when Teddy climbs the lighthouse stairway.

I enjoyed your well-written analysis.

Kelli Marshall said...

I completely agree with you that -- on the surface at least -- most of SHUTTER ISLAND "feels like an uninspiring cliché." Are you completely certain about the ending though?

At one point you write, "there were moments, even near the conclusion, when I thought – er, hoped – that I’d be proven wrong. But, in the end, the story went almost exactly where I thought it would."

May I submit that perhaps you/viewers WERE misguided just a bit, at least in the last 3-4 shots of the film. Specifically, what do you make of Teddy's/Andrew's line about "monsters and good men?" (Note DiCaprio's change in tone there as well as "Chuck's" reaction shot.) Is he or isn't he sane at that moment?

Richard Bellamy said...


Kelli - Desperately wishing to believe that the ending is ambiguous, I Googled interpretations of the ending and it seems that the consensus is that the ending is not ambiguous. Teddy is nuts. In regards to the novel, apparently, Lehane has said in an interview that Teddy is indeed delusional. (Of course, Scorsese still has full liberty to make his own ending.)

My hoping that the ending is ambiguous rested on Teddy's final words - that he knew there was no escape from this diabolical plot. But the final scene shows the garden so neat and unmarred - a clear visual clue that the storm never happened.

Kelli Marshall said...

Hi, Hokahey. Thanks for the response. Yeah, soon after I left the theatre, I also Googled the ending. =) I found that there were several people (mostly on Yahoo groups, postings, etc.) who interpreted the end of the movie as rather ambiguous. Here's one for example: But, as you noticed, there are also certainly many who see it rather matter-of-factly.

I'm not advocating that Teddy/Andrew was NEVER insane; in fact, I think the film firmly points out his insanity (sheesh, it does so for 30m, doesn't it?!). It's the last 3-4 shots that intrigue me and seem to suggest something slightly more complex than all of the explanation that immediately prefaces it. I guess I just wasn't convinced -- by DiCaprio's shift in tone and Ruffalo's (odd) reaction shot to Teddy's willingness to go -- that "the cycle" had really started over. Or perhaps I simply don't want to believe that Scorsese would offer such a clear-cut resolution. =)

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments!

Kelli: The only thing that perplexes me about the ending is what the line about living like a monster or dying like a good man really means. But -- given Hokahey's note about the immaculate garden, among other things -- we seem to agree that at best Teddy/Andrew is finally sane enough to understand his insanity, and thus he fakes his insanity so that they remove his memory of his trauma. I'm open to that interpretation. But to get to that moment of kinda-sorta originality, the story first must succumb to the big "it's only a dream" kind of cliche. And that's such a whopper that the final note of ambiguity doesn't feel all that profound.

Kelli Marshall said...

Hi, Jason. You write, "Teddy/Andrew is finally sane enough to understand his insanity, and thus he fakes his insanity so that they remove his memory of his trauma." Yes, yes; this is precisely what I meant by my initial comment, "Is he or isn't he sane at that moment?"

I don't know whether this "final note of ambiguity" as you say, is profound or not; but I did appreciate the subtlety of those last 3-4 shots in an otherwise relatively uncomplicated narrative.

PS. Thanks for responding!

Richard Bellamy said...

Kelli - Thanks for your response to my comment. I love how you say that the film spends 30 minutes showing his insanity. It seemed like longer! Anyway, I agree with your observations about the final scene. It was subtle and well done (though I thought we didn't need to be shown the sharp instrument sticking out of the towel. I think we are smart enough to have gotten the point - pun intended.) I don't know whether this "final note of ambiguity" as you say, is profound or not; but I did appreciate the subtlety of those last 3-4 shots in an otherwise relatively uncomplicated narrative.

Jake said...

As I'm sure you are aware by now, given that you linked to it (thank you, by the way) I disagree. I certainly don't think there's much in the way of depth here, but I did find myself surprisingly moved, and that's not something I sniff at, especially over a film like this that really shouldn't move me at all. I confess a bias for Scorsese, but only because the only other director who's been as prolific and routinely rewarding to me personally is Werner Herzog. I understand wanting more from its buried intelligence and emotion and less from its movie-ness but I couldn't help but love it.

I think, like Kelli, that the live like a monster/die a good man line suggests that "Tandrew" as I call him was still cured but couldn't live with himself now that he faced the truth. It doesn't seem like the sort of thing that Teddy Daniels would have said at any point and the look on Ruffalo's face clenched it for me.

Ghibli said...

Love this review and exchange. I didn’t see the twist until much later—my first inkling was when, after the “detectives” were out in the storm and had to surrender their suits to be “dry cleaned” for prison-issued clothing-- but I knew something was strange when the dreams and hallucinations became so frequent and confusing it was clear something in Teddy's head wasn't right.
What I loved about this movie was that it was less of a "jumper"-- deliberately scary in moments of fright as the preview portended-- and much more Hitchcockian and psychological, as Jason points out.
Wonderful point about the water theme as trauma for Teddy/Andrew. And that’s part of why I’d love to see it again. What through me off in terms of Teddy’s trauma’s was the frequent flashbacks to his war service. I figured that was his ONE trauma, not that it was his wife, his murder. I also found it interesting, a point not touched on here yet, about how Andrew’s alcohol problem may have been the primary source of his post-war self-medication, and was also a source of problems at home before the tragic drownings and perhaps massive guilt after. In the very first conversation inside the opulent Dr.’s house, which may or may not have taken place (for real) when the “detectives” are invited over to talk, words are exchanged with the very creepy Max von Sydow’s Dr. Naehring about professions and drinking and killing and at that point Teddy adamantly defends his choice to not drink. Just an interesting tidbit that struck me later as perhaps a quality he decided he didn’t want his created persona to have.
Kelli: You are not alone in thinking that at the very end, perhaps Andrew was sane and willingly went into their custody to undergo whatever operation(s) they wanted to perform. I felt that way too, at first as the tone was different to me as well. I tend to think his mind was just re-setting itself again but I guess I wish we had a clearer sense of that, maybe even a flashback to the previous time he sat on those very steps after a “breakthrough” or better yet, a recording of his voice from the previous “re-set” that would convince us of his total insanity.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the further comments, all.

Yes, the line at the end -- and the reaction of "Chuck" -- would indicate that Teddy is aware of what's about to happen to him, and that he chooses it. And I'm fine with that reading. And yet ...

Isn't part of the reason that we want to believe in that line tied to the fact that throughout the film we try to believe in Teddy? It's pretty rare to find out that the guy we've been rooting for, if you will, is a total nut. Because in his own fantasy, Teddy is an intelligent guy. My point being, part of deciding that "Andrew" gets it comes from a belief in "Teddy." Which certainly isn't a mark in the favor of self-awareness. Just tossing that out there.

Ghibli: Excellent points about Teddy's decisions not to drink. That's yet another example of how the story is more interesting in retrospect, and yet one has to remember back pretty far to appreciate that scene.

Sam Juliano said...

Jason, as always this is an extraordinary piece of criticism, and I don't say that to kiss ass but to voice my genuine respect with some of the aspects you liked. The way you set up the atmospherics at the beginning were descriptive and dead-on, and I don't think you were ever less than fair throughout.

However, as I've stated at other blogs, I will set aside the red herrings and the issues, in view of teh fact that I absolutely loved, loved, love dthsi film, which which was as entertaining as any I've seen in a ,long time. Scenes at the lighthouse, in the cave, in a cemetery burial vault, in a study, in a cafeteria are all deliciously embedded in my mind, and the extraordinary use of weather to externalize the conflict was ingenius. The ending, and the use of the Dachau concentration camp flashback structure? I loved both too, exceedingly. When there is so much fun to be had at every turn, I simply less aside what I see to be insignificant in the grand scheme. But I only speak for myself of course. The fact that I was NEVER at any point on to that ending was perhaps a major point in forming my overall reaction.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks much, Sam. I've spotted a few of your comments (did you review this one? I need to go check).

I certainly agree that there is much to admire about this film. I enjoyed several of the scenes you mentioned (though I thought the one in the cave was at little too on-the-nose and ran over its usefulness).

I do think there's something powerful at the end about seeing DiCaprio's character come to terms with who he is. But I'm still puzzled by Scorsese's approach, which gives us more of an understanding of what's going on than Teddy and yet not enough of an understanding to where we can really observe Teddy's madness without distraction, so to speak.

I don't mean to imply, here or in my review, that there's a "right" or "wrong" way to do this. And I'm trying not to play director. But, as I said, I think the film loses some momentum when it becomes a story that must be sorted with words after building its strength on images.

Sam Juliano said...

Thanks very much for the great response Jason!

I did mnot alas review this film, though I'll admit I was dying to. But one of my WitD colleagues Bob Clark, aleady had his review ready, so I yielded. Bob seems to be entire on your wave length, though he expresses it differently.

bill r. said...

Jason, this is a great post, with which I disagree. But I'd like to focus on the storm. How do you know the storm never happened? One shot of the garden doesn't cut it: we don't know how long after the scene in the lighthouse the final scene takes place. It could have been months.

Jason Bellamy said...

We don't know how long after the scene in the lighthouse the final scene takes place. It could have been months.

I'll give you that. But, to be honest, I'm disappointed if there was a storm, because otherwise the storm is a psychological symbol of "Teddy's" water-based trauma. Also, the imagined storm causes the imagined prisoner breakout. They are perfectly linked. Likewise, the imagined storm creates a reason for Teddy to be unable to leave the island under his own free will. To me all of that makes it much more interesting thematically if it's a hallucination.

Also, I would assume one of the reasons Scorsese shows shots of the perfectly manicured grounds before and after the "storm" is to drive the point home that it was all in Teddy's mind. To me, it's one of the many obvious clues to make sure the audience knows that Teddy is insane.

You're right, though. It could be months later. But "Chuck" and the other doctors treat the situation as if it's the morning after. So that was my reading.

Interesting thought, though, Bill. Thanks much for weighing in!

Joshua said...

I kind of dig the twist ending to be honest, mostly because it's pretty well established a quarter of the way in. Having read the book, and loved it, I had a completely different experience in the theater than you. I thought it was a lot more powerful than I had expected and that Scorsese was also a more appropriate director for this material than I'd previously expected.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Also, I would assume one of the reasons Scorsese shows shots of the perfectly manicured grounds before and after the "storm" is to drive the point home that it was all in Teddy's mind. To me, it's one of the many obvious clues to make sure the audience knows that Teddy is insane.

I agree with Jason on this point. I took the storm to be entirely in Teddy's head...thus adding to the other blatant symbols and metaphors of the film...which I liked a lot. I'm just sayin'...the symbolism here is about as subtle as The Bible. Which is more than fine (it's actually quite perfect) for the type of old-Hollywood film Scorsese was trying to make. Those films weren't subtle or cerebral either.

Great thoughts as always, Jason. I loved this movie...I'll explain why if I can ever formulate my thoughts into a it stands right now my rambling would be too incoherent for a comment here. Just wanted to let you know that I loved your piece...even if we don't totally agree on the film.

Anonymous said...

ive watched the film a few times now, and logically it seems teddy is nuts. all signs point to it on re-re-watchings, including, most telling, i think, when he hallucinates about helping the escaped patient murder her kids. the daughter asks him why he didnt save them and he answers as would andrew.
anyway, all beside the point, because im unwilling to make a final call because of the final scene. not the monster/good man qute, but literally the final scene. an ominous pan out of the lighthouse, suggesting this is where they are taking teddy/andrew. yet when he was in the light-house, nothing sinister was afoot?
the key is also the storm. if there really was a storm, then we have to conclude that teddy is sane.
overall i think the ending is just non-sensical any other way than teddy is a nutter.

Anonymous said...

Aside from the shots showing the manicured lawns, Dr. Cawley mentions in the lighthouse that the storm was part of the fantasy.

I guess what I'm wondering is, did they release some prisoners to add realism to the post-storm prison break? All the prison personnel were acting as Teddy and Chuck were walking into ward C? Pretty bold role play.

Anonymous said...

You have no idea what this movie was even about. If you hadn't written so much I would have assumed that a monkey wrote this movie. And BTW the movie wasn't supposed to be about Holly Wood's flashy suspense scene, it was much more than that. Watch it a second time and maybe you'll understand it a little better.

Jason Bellamy said...

So, Anon, would you at least like to say what it is about, rather than just telling me how I fail to understand it?

Tom said...

I think the ambiguity of the last few scenes is pretty powerful. Its what makes this one stick in your head. I guess I also read the final scene as months later. After DiCaprio says his line about monsters and good men, he walks off, we see Ruffalo's puzzled expression, and the final line of the film is "Teddy?"(not Andrew). Teddy/Andrew is taken off by the men in the white jackets, and we see one final shot of the lighthouse before the credits roll. This final chain of events was enough to put doubt in my mind.
The revelation in the lighthouse WAS a little too verbose. Scorsese doenst fall into the trap that other directors (M. Night, Singer, Fincher, etc..) fall into by ending the movie in the lighthouse with a montage of images (Teddy's perception vs reality) set to powerful orchestral music. Instead he lets the doubt linger in Teddy's mind and in the mind of the audience. By doing so he draws the audience in to his state of mind. Teddy doesnt know whether he has experienced a psychotic break or whether the keepers of the asylum are simply declaring him insane for their own benefit, and neither do we the audience. The ambiguity leaves us in Teddy/Andrew's shoes past the end of the film, and by doing so makes it an effective observation of his madness.

PS - I have never seen the basketball video - but my recollection of the events is as follows: I was on the post and the guy behind me pushed me in the back hard enough to cause me to stumble forward. I looked back at him, just as Kevin threw the ball at me. I turned my head in just enough time to see the ball peg me in the forehead. Im not sure if this will hold up on video viewings, my recollection is pretty terrible and I was pretty clumsy. Im sure there are several more videos of me jumping out of bounds to save a ball, only to run face-first into a wall. Also if you rearrange the letters of my name you get Same Cartoon. Think about it...

Jason Bellamy said...

Tom: It's been too long since I've seen this to be able to remember the details of the conclusion of Shutter Island, beyond what's above, I mean.

But I can remember The Play like it was yesterday ... well, sort of ...

Yes, I believe you were passed the ball on the block. It skipped off your hand and was about to go out of bounds. You attempted to save it, flipped the ball behind you, and in doing so sacrificed your face into the padded (but far from soft) wall. What's incredible watching the video is the SOUND of your face hitting the wall. It's loud! You land on your feet, and then you sort of shuffle, stumble, like a guy who was just clocked by Mike Tyson, and it's then that you notice that your nose is bleeding.

I have two tapes from that year. In the other one, there's another ball-going-out-of-bounds play I love. I'm in the corner and have been passed the ball to shoot a 3. The ball skips off my hands and starts going out of bounds. At that point, I drop my head, turn away from the court and kick the bleacher behind me. Meanwhile, Suiter comes out of nowhere and saves the ball to me. Or, rather, he saves the ball to where I would be if I were paying attention, but I'm kicking a bleacher. The other team gets the ball and heads the other way. Oops.

tom said...

I think I have Cottage Grove '91 at my dad's house somewhere, but that's about it. That was by far my favorite year in BB. Rick should have been our coach all the way through. Off topic. Anyway - Ill try to comment on more recent reviews, but I hardly watch movies in the theater anymore.

Sophie K said...

Has anyone considered that the final narrative teddy/ we are fed by the doctor is in fact an experiment itself and that teddy is not laeddis as such but a part of his psyche, the scarred ugly man a reflection of the self that drove him to committ the dreadful murder of his wife, a crime that he refuses to accept? I've know watched the film twice and certain scenes more, closely analysing certain features as a part of an English literature university assignment. Firstly, note the way in which leaddis lights the match in the dream sequence; the extreme close-up of his hands seems to mirror teddy in a later scene lighting the match in ward C. Also, when leaddis offers teddy a drink saying 'i know how much you need it'' Is it that leaddis is in fact a part of teddys unconscious self and therforebdid 'Edward Daniels' actually burn down the apartment killing his wife. Is the story of the lake house just another experimental manifestation which teddy has heard before and relates visual images/ memories of Dauche with when prompted to do so? Further, water seems to act as a distortion, which masks things for teddy. Yet, we often see teddy emerge from smoke or fog... To me this indicates that he attempts to hide from his crimes behind the 'smoke' which killed his wife 'not the fire' that killed her, as he says to chuck 'that's important' and therefore the water is a form of pathetic fallacy and merely used to reflect his psychological chaous not a heart wrenching memory? And how about the fact that teddy never mentions the death of his children. Surely you would say your family died not just your wife if asked? However, the ending further riddles the screen play with ambiguity when teddy asks is it better to live as a monster or die as a good man. I believe here, teddy has accepted the lake house story but does not believe in it wholley. Look again and youll notice that the children are not in the water until teddy looks for them and the inital question he asks 'baby, while you all wet?' is later recalled by the doctor as 'why you all wet baby?'. To conclude, there would surely be some acceptance and empathy for a man who kills in retaliation the murder of his children? Is it then that teddy (which note chuck calls at the very end, not 'andrew' as you would expect if the lake house narrative were true) chooses to die because he can no longer go on with the endless stories he attempts to believe to mask his true identity- Edward Daniels the man who killed his wife after setting fire to their apartment? In turn, killing the ugly, scarred part of his psyche (represented by leaddis) just as Dolores tells him to do during the dream sequence. Dying as an honourable war veteran who was driven to such a fate by (as you'd have never guessed) a woman! Which could raise a debate itself but I'll stop there! ...(please excuse everything dodgy, I'm sure predictive typing on m I-pad will have embarrassed me somewhere...)