This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel, is Leonardo DiCaprio’s other major release of 2010 featuring an intense protagonist haunted by a deceased wife and revealing dreams. DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, who along with his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are US Marshals sent to remote Shutter Island. The island’s main attraction is the Ashecliffe Hospital, an asylum for the criminally insane. Run by the personable Dr John Cawley (Ben Kingsley), the asylum is half penitentiary, half hospital; all of its residents have been convicted of violent crimes – usually murder – but Dr Cawley claims to do his best to create as pleasant and agreeable an environment for them as circumstances allow. Ahead of his time in some ways, he doesn’t believe in surgical interventions or drugging his patients, and prefers to cure them with kindness – of course, there’ll always be a certain number of patients who won’t respond to that, and that’s why they have Ward C in the old (slightly unconvincingly CGI’d) Civil War fortress on the island.
Daniels and Aule are there to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), a patient who was institutionalised after drowning her three children and who, according to all reports, is so divorced from reality she believes her children are still alive and won’t even acknowledge that the asylum is an asylum. Soon two things become clear: firstly, that almost everyone Daniels and Aule meet are trying to keep a secret from them, and secondly that Daniels himself has his own demons – he’s haunted by flashbacks both of his experience as an infantryman in World War II involved in liberating some of the death camps and of his wife Dorlores Chanal (Michelle Williams), who died in a house fire. He’s determined not to let either that or the asylum authorities’ lack of co-operation stop him solving the case though. In fact, his dreams in which his dead wife comes to him and gives him pointers about the case might even help a little.
This is an interesting enough setup which is squandered due to the assembled cinematic giants simply performing well below the standards we expect of them. Scorsese’s direction is ludicrously heavy-handed, especially with respect to the music – the soundtrack to the scene in which Daniels and Aule drive through the gates of the asylum is the auditory equivalent of a curb-stomping. Leonardo DiCaprio does his shouty tough guy act but does not convince. Ben Kingsley swans about being Ben Kingsley and seems to expend most of his energy on not bursting out in giggles at the ridiculous claptrap the script by Laeta Kalogridis and an uncredited Steven Knight shoehorns into his distinguished mouth. Max von Sydow is an interesting embellishment to the cast as Dr Jeremiah Naehring, a psychiatrist at the institution who DiCaprio realises is a naturalised German citizen (and seems on the verge of accusing of being a Nazi war criminal), but that particular angle never really goes anywhere.
Playing the old detective story angle more or less straight for the first half an hour or so, things take an odd turn once Daniels reveals to Aule his real reason for his interest in the Ashecliffe Hospital. A scene which should be a major dramatic reversal somehow manages to be just a load of tedious chatter, which considering that it’s against a backdrop of a hurricane in a cemetery and dozens of German guards being shot in a concentration camp is actually quite impressive; it requires the genius touch of a director of Scorsese’s calibre to take all that awesome stuff and make it dull. The excessive exposition of Daniels’ war flashbacks is particularly unnecessary in the scene, mainly because it involves a detailed explanation of something which any viewer who has even remotely been paying attention would surely have figured out. This isn’t the only part of the film where Scorsese forgets to do some editing; a later scene involving a charming campfire chat about lobotomy drags on interminably in a similar manner, only without the flashbacks or dead soldiers to spice it up, and the depiction of the big plot twist and the aftermath of the revelation drags on and on for around half an hour. To put that last point in context, Scorsese so distrusts his audience’s ability to grasp the big reveal that he spends almost a quarter of the film explaining said big reveal, which is particularly patronising considering that said big reveal is the obvious one you’ve probably guessed already.
The Holocaust dream sequence that comes in just under halfway into the film is a ridiculously cheap shot. In fact, most of the dream sequences are kind of overblown, overplayed, and way too obvious with their symbolism. Not only does Scorsese not even try to be oblique or mysterious or unconventional when it comes to the dreams, he also uses them to loudly broadcast plot points and character details that have already been perfectly adequately hinted at – and in most cases absolutely blatantly hinted at. If you haven’t worked out the general shape of the final plot twist within the first five minutes of the film starting – or, hell, by even reading the first couple of paragraphs of the review – you honestly aren’t trying, and if you watch the film conscious of the plot twist it just fails to be interesting: it doesn’t reveal new depths to the film you didn’t catch before because, uh, you already guessed the twist so you were looking for those depths the first time around. This is especially the case because the twist is not just obvious, but incredibly stupid; for it to actually work, it would require a combination of a long sequence of accidents outside everyone’s control, a small army of people being willing to completely turn their lives upside down and utterly disrupt the running of the asylum for which they are responsible for the sake of one little psychodrama, the psychodrama in question being designed by someone who had no real investment in it actually working for the purpose it was hatched for, and most of all a group of well-trained psychiatric professionals being willing to allow highly dangerous patients to run around free on the island being a danger to themselves or others.
Although the film makes token gestures towards arguing for humane and dignified methods of treating psychiatric patients which do not involve transorbital lobotomies and bring in only minimal amounts of drugs, it doesn’t quite work on this front because said humane and dignified treatment methods are shown to not actually work the way they were intended to work – plus, despite claims to the contrary, the hospital really isn’t at all committed to applying them. At the halfway point we start visiting Ward C and the film gives up trying to provide even a slightly nuanced depiction of mental illness and just goes for all of the over the top horror imagery we’ve been tiresomely associating with mental hospitals for the last two or three hundred years. It’s almost as though the hospital authorities are trying to go all-out gothic for Ward C on the basis that “Well, the patients there are incurable anyway, may as well have some fun with them.”
At the end of the day, Shutter Island is a psychological thriller that uses the most obvious plot twist that a psychological thriller set up with its premises could ever possibly use, and does it in such a heavy-handed and ham-fisted way that it ceases to be scary or interesting or insightful or clever or any of the things a psychological thriller really needs to be if it’s going to avoid being a colossal waste of time. It’s just plain tedious, to the point where I’m inclined to get counterfactual and say I’d be happier if Scorsese had just made a straight up 1950s detective story working from the premise as set up in the first half hour or so. At least then there may have been some chance that the film would have surprised me.