Friday, April 16, 2010

Why You NEED to See Shutter Island Again

Shutter Island Movie (Leonardo DiCaprio) Poster Print - 24" X 36" 
Let me begin by advising if you haven't seen Shutter Island yet, then leave this blog at once and get straight down to your nearest cinema, watch it, then come right back here and read what I have to say. This piece WILL involve major SPOILERS and in-depth dissection of said SPOILERS and as anyone who has seen the film knows, you must be completely SPOILER-free when you watch it otherwise much of its magic is lost.

I first saw Scorsese's Shutter Island as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival back in February and I was completely blown away by it for several reasons. Mainly, I was entralled by Scorsese's rich storytelling and his beautifully cinematic homage to gothic horror and noir thrillers of the 1940's and 50's. As time went by I found myself thinking about the film more and more mostly because I'd spent the film theorising and trying to stay on board with the mad twists it was taking, I hadn't had time to really absorb everything the way it deserved.

Scorsese has delivered a film in Shutter Island that goes beyond homage to the point that in every way possible it looks and feels like a film from the 1950's. From the acting style, to the shaky psychology to the clunky exposition ("what's that building?" - "It's an old lighthouse." Or the classic "That dock is the only way on...or off") and of course the swelling soundtrack are all indicative of the likes of Jacques Tourneur or Robert Siodmak or Robert Wise, even more so than Hitchcock who gets credited with most of the influence over this film. The plot twists and turns like nobody's business and just when you think you've got it all figured out, you change your mind time and time again until you realised you were right the first time. Many people took issue with the film because of its immature and downright ignorant view of how the brain works but this was one of my favourite parts of the film. Have you ever seen Marnie, Spellbound or The Snake Pit? All of these films show signs of a deep level of misunderstanding in a time when modern psychology theory was just finding its feet. Call me overly generous but I believe Scorsese went for this script for that very reason. Everything about this story has the stink of 1950s off it. And if you ever listen to Scorsese talk about film you will know that he is passionate about that era. I think this was his chance to recreate something that he worships and I think a slap on the back is in order because he pulled it off perfectly!

People who haven't watched it yet...? Are you gone? I hope so!

As soon as the film went on general release I got a group of friends together and we all went to see it. Not only was I interested in seeing the film a second time but I was also interested in watching the reaction of "fresh meat". My friends were suitably impressed but I was pleasantly surprised to find that on second viewing Shutter Island is a completely different film to the film I had enjoyed two weeks earlier.

Fresh meat...I hope you're gone cos this is where the spoilers really kick in...

"You act like insanity is catchin'" - The Game
On second viewing you go in with the knowledge that Teddy is in fact crazy and that the entire institution are part of a game of sorts, subtly and not-so-subtly trying to pull him out of the deluded world he has created for himself. From the nurses and doctors to the orderlies, guards and even the patients themselves (the trickiest part, I'm sure). Much of the film's playfulness comes to the fore with this knowledge. Those wooden and often downright dodgy actors who play the guards and patients are now not so wooden, they are merely uncomfortable with pulling off this charade. The knowing glances that were once interpreted as conspiratorial are now, we know, mocking Teddy's arrogant disposition and his now ironic aversion to bullshit.

The simplest of lines take on new meanings. When Teddy notes to the guard: "Your boys seem a little on edge" the guard gives a certain look and replies "right now, Marshall, we all are". Certain lines receive odd little looks that you didn't notice the first time such as Teddy's cheeky "you act like insanity is catchin'". The look that the actor gives in reply is hilarious on second viewing. The chilling lady in the garden with her throat slit who motions "shhhh! to Teddy as he walks by is clearly an example of how undependable mental patients are at keeping secrets. On first viewing this was taken as either a pointless conceit to create tension and fear, or in fact a suggestion of conspiracy.

"I'm just bones in a box Teddy. You have to wake up" - Teddy's Dreams
Throughout the film, there are spatterings of dreams and visions from Teddy's perspective. Later, we discover that some of these things (meeting Rachel Solondo in the cave, George Noyce in Ward C) were walking nightmares or delusions brought on by withdrawal from two years of chloropromozine treatment. These delusions help "cheat" the audience by furthering the idea that there is a conspiracy regarding secret experiments. However, we find out that they are made up by Teddy presumably to help him feel in control by "investigating" something in a world where he is most decidedly out of control. 

Teddy also experiences dreams and flashbacks about his time as a soldier in WWII. These are mostly comprised of gruesome images of dead Jews and a particular incident where he decided to allow a Nazi soldier to suffer a slow death instead of allowing him to end his pain. He also explains to his "partner" Chuck that they murdered remaining Nazi soldiers after their surrender simply out of anger and hatred. He explains that he is "through with killin'" because of that.

He is also haunted by visions and dreams of his dead wife Dolores. She appears to be giving him help regarding the case and explaining that he needs to let her go. Initially we are told that she died in a fire set by Andrew Laeddis, the maintenence man in the building where they lived. We find out, of course, that Dolores died by Teddy's hand after he found out she had drowned their three children. Early in the film Teddy explains to Chuck that "Andrew Laeddis lit the match that started the fire that killed my wife". In retrospect, we can now read that Teddy's self-hatred stems from feeling that he didn't do enough to help his wife when she suffered from severe depression. His invention of the backstory of the fire is a clever way of equating himself with a murderous villain and the metaphor of starting a fire is as uncontrollable as his wife's mental health.

Later, he dreams of Rachel Solondo (or the nurse who is posing as the missing patient) who is covered in blood and stands beside a dead Jewish child from his war flashback. As he carries the dead child away she says "You should have saved me. You should have saved all of us". Again this seems like a reference to the war, but on second viewing we see that it is his own conscience telling him that he could have saved his family if he had only gotten his wife the help she needed.

In fact, the phrase "Why are you all wet, baby?" is uttered three times in the film, most notably by Dr. Cawley when he is ready to explain their plan to Teddy and try to drag him out of his deluded world. These words were also spoken by Dolores in a dream and later we find out their importance in the flashback to the day he found his children drowned in the lake.

Dr.Naehring (Von Sydow) plays a role that can be looked at from many angles. I like to believe he is a Doubting Thomas who is only going along with the charade in the hope that Dr. Cawley will be proven wrong (I guess he's the real winner) but he also functions as a catalyst for Teddy's memories of the war because he is German. His most pivotal scene comes when he and Teddy have a confrontation at the height of the film's madness where he explains the linguistic links between the word "dream" and the word "trauma", presumably to help Teddy figure out that dreams are not dreams, but perhaps recollections of past traumas trying to come to the surface.

"Maybe we'll run into Andrew Laeddis" - Performance
One of the most obvious things that leaps to the fore on second viewing is the quality of the performances. One first viewing, Di Caprio was great as always, playing the arrogant cop, then a lunatic with equal measure of gusto. However, great subtleties were exposed on second viewing. If you watch his performance knowing the fact that he is suffering wild delusions, you can see it in his eyes in every frame. Scorsese's trick was to give him the wild-eyed, damaged noir anti-hero persona so we didn't notice that he is in fact just plain batshit crazy. Upon knowing he is delusional and that he knows deep down somewhere that none of this is real, the humour, and ultimately tragedy of this lost soul is really highlighted. Di Caprio really played it perfectly on the fine line between subtle and lazy. He went to great pains to ensure that the performance worked both ways. He was absolutely believable as the cop in trouble and absolutely believable as the lunatic.

Credit must also be given to Mark Ruffalo who seems like a fairly run-of-the-mill character first time around. But on second viewing his character comes to life in all sorts of ways. Again, Scorsese uses a noir trope of the trusting sidekick whose fate is usually death. Ruffalo's Chuck looks up to his "partner" constantly calling him "Boss" and allowing Teddy room to theorise and be the hero. On second viewing we see a caring, intelligent doctor who is desperate to help his patient overcome his past trauma. We also see a man who has a sense of humour and a soft, kind disposition. In a particular scene where Teddy figures out what the phrase "Who is 67?" means Chuck and Dr. Cawley share the subtlest of triumphant looks. Both have seen an enormous leap in the right direction. Their plan is working! This tiny glance, which was completely invisible on first viewing says so much about the caring nature of both men that all suspicion of bad intentions must be pushed away.

"That's the Kafkaesque genius of it" - Suspending Disbelief 
That one line, spoken by Rachel Solondo in the caves sums up a lot of what we are to feel about Shutter Island. Anybody who is even vaguely familiar with Kafka's work will know that he has a tendency to begin with a normal person and drag them very quickly and very dramatically into an otherworldly place so unconventional that they had to make up a word for it (Kafkaesque). Kafka's tales are grounded in some sort of reality, usually an exaggerated state of paranoia or fear induces whatever happens to his protagonists. Two cases in point being The Trial and The Metamorphosis which are both examples of this. Now, this is a very broad analogy and I'm not necessarily comparing this film to the works of Kafka but I am trying to argue that the line that Rachel Solondo speaks allows us the freedom to suspend disbelief and just go along for the ride. There are many questions left unanswered at the end of the film and all is not ironed out in the most intricate detail, but Scorsese uses this reference to Kafka as a way of inviting audiences to not allow themselves to get bogged down in semantics and just let the story and its poignant sense of humanity and tragedy to wash over them. Nitpicking in films such as this distracts from the many more important positive factors. Might you call it cheating? Yes, you may, but only if you're terribly cynical.

These have been just a few of my mad thoughts on the merits of watching Shutter Island a second time. Why do I feel passionate enough about it that I would bother to write this piece? Because Shutter Island is a film that encapsulates so much of what cinema is. It is Martin Scorsese's love letter to cinema and it represents the best of everything that cinema has to offer. Shutter Island IS cinema and I dread the thought that so many wonderful aspects of this film were lost because of our natural human impulse to figure everything out as we go. This is a film that needs to be seen again. Seen without the stress of a twisting plotline. It needs to be seen twice for all the reasons I've given above. And it needs to be seen twice because it is simply a wonderful film.

- Charlene Lydon


  1. A nagging question that followed me after the Big Reveal of the movie was why the heck was he there in the first place?! I have a hard time believing that a man who killed the wife that killed their three children would be classified as "criminally insane." I mean, come on - a war hero avenging his children? In the 50s? Even today he'd probably get off on justifiable homicide.

    If he's insane there has to be more to it than that, doesn't there?

    Someone in another blog speculated that he was the one who killed their children, which I don't think is supported by the film (that I noticed), but that would be more of a "criminally insane" action than what he supposedly did.

    UGH. I need some freakin' Cliff's Notes on this damn movie. :P

  2. Interesting point. The thought did cross my mind. Perhaps it's something that is addressed in the book and skipped over for the sake of brevity in the film. I did presume that his hospitalisation was due to his complete mental breakdown during which he probably said a lot of things he didn't mean. Also, it isn't necessarily a place for murderers but its a place for dangerous people. The doctors described him in the film as a man who has led a violent life. Maybe they studied him and worried that he could snap if not looked after properly.

    These are just musings. Really, the should have found a subtle way fo addressing this in the film. On the plus side it does give us something to mull over weeks after watching the film :)

    Thanks for the comment! :)

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  4. The only thing I don't get in hindsight is the boat. How did they get him there? Did they drug him on the island, carry him on the boat and then just wait patiently for him to wake up? (Maybe I just answered my own question...)

    Thanks to your post I will definitely re-watch this movie when it comes out on DVD.

  5. Good point R.E.R. but again I think Scorsese really wants us to rise above our natural instincts to notpick and just enjoy the mad story for what it is. I know that sounds like a cop out but it makes life much easier for all concerned...and yes I think you might just have answered your own question :)

    Thanks for reading!

  6. Great review/discussion! I'm afraid nitpicking did distract me from enjoying this film..which is probably why I came away somewhat disappointed. I heard some critics mention that there was a twist so I went along determined to work it out before the end and avoid another Sixth Sense shocker. Visually it was fantastic, and I particularly liked Mark Ruffalo who can play the cop role so well, (or doctor pretending he's a cop..), but it just all seemed so far-fetched to me..I may need to take your advice about going along with the 'kafkaesqe' ride and watch it a 2nd time before I'm sure of my views on this movie!

  7. what a great, revealing blog. After watching for the first time, I thought that dicaprio was the victim.
    But your review and a second watch cleared it all.
    Thanks a lot!

  8. Anonymous8:31 AM

    i noticed the fake "drink" of water by Ms. Kern the 1st time around,but had no idea that she was "acting"

  9. I watched this film again and again. It is so wonderful to read the interpretation of a total stranger and feel utterly in sync. I understood the complexities of the film the second time round as you did Charlene and it has subsequently gained entry into my all time favourites. The way the film matures upon further inspection is incredibly fulfilling and unlike any other film I can think of. (Although I am a self proclaimed neophyte film buff) If anyone can rid me of my sinful ignorance and suggest even 1 film that rivals this masterpiece of cinematic art then please do so, and allow me to ride another undulating plot twist roller coaster revelation experience!

  10. I watched this film again and again. It is so wonderful to read the interpretation of a total stranger and feel utterly in sync. I understood the complexities of the film the second time round as you did Charlene and it has subsequently gained entry into my all time favourites. The way the film matures upon further inspection is incredibly fulfilling and unlike any other film I can think of. (Although I am a self proclaimed neophyte film buff) If anyone can rid me of my sinful ignorance and suggest even 1 film that rivals this masterpiece of cinematic art then please do so, and allow me to ride another undulating plot twist roller coaster revelation experience!