Shutter Island is a film that deserves to be watched twice…if not more. So that’s what I did. I watched it once, was blown away by it and so watched it again (and bought it and put it in pride of place on my ‘favourite DVD’ shelf – that’s right, that’s how I organise my films).
The problem with falling in love with Shutter Island is that I can’t talk about it with anyone except those who have seen it. So I’ve decided to do this review in two halves. Yes, it’s a few years old now so why not just spoil it but this is not the kind of film you should spoil for anyone. The first half is spoiler free and about my first viewing. The second half is spoiler galore and only for those who have already seen it.
** Spoiler free**
I wasn’t convinced at the beginning. The first thing that hit me was the acting. Leonardo Dicaprio and Mark Ruffalo are amazing actors, so why does it feel stilted? Why does it feel wrong? The second thing was the appauling blue screens, where it’s obvious the actors are working in front of a blue screen and the background put in via a projector or in editing.
However, I stuck with it and quickly became absorbed in the story.
Shutter Island follows US Marshals Teddy Daniels (Dicaprio) and Chuck Aule (Ruffalo) who travel to Shutter Island, the site of a institute for the criminally insane, to find an escaped prisoner. Teddy has an ulteria motive, however, and he soon begins to question his own sanity.
The film is set in 1954 at a time when the treatment of mental illness was approaching a critical juncture, away from violence, restraint and lobotomies, and into calm inducing drugs, respect and understanding. The doctors on Shutter Island are split between the two worlds, Dr Naehring (Max von Sydow) and the warden (Ted Levine), and Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and the absent Dr Sheehan.
You go on the journey with Teddy, slowly slipping into a world of delusion and questioning just what is real. This is a story about reality and delusion, about the human mind and trauma. It is disturbing in places, but it has to be.
The acting at the beginning was off for a reason, as is the blue screen work. Dicaprio and Ruffalo are faultless throughout and of course Martin Scorsese knows how to do blue screen! The man knows how to make a good film. Did you see the main obvious continuity error? There are so many clever pieces that add to the delusional world and the continuity errors help to make the viewer question not only Teddy but themselves.
And that blue screen work? Not only does it add to the 1950s vibe but it makes certain scenes just a little less real, again adding to the delusion and insanity of the island.
The ending is amazing. That’s all I can say about it at this point. This is a pyscological thriller which is incredibly intelligent, moving and absorbing. I recommend it to everyone, just give it a go, half an hour, and see if you can’t watch it to the end.
**SPOILER ALERT – WATCH SHUTTER ISLAND BEFORE READING ON**
Wow. So now you’ve watched Shutter Island and you know the ending. A second viewing is vital to fully enjoy the cleverness and essence of this film. It’s almost like watching an entirely different film and those little clues that didn’t mean much the first time round are suddenly blindingly obvious and, in places, even funny.
Funny? What could be funny about this film, I hear you cry. How about when Teddy and Chuck land on the island. Before entering the facility the deputy warden orders them to hand over their firearms. Chuck (or Sheehan as we now know him to be) struggles with his. The deputy warden’s expression is priceless. Those expressions and reactions are littered throughout the film and the second viewing allows you to understand all of them.
Many things make sense on the second viewing; the searching guards who sit around and throw rocks into the sea, the staff reactions to Teddy questioning them, especially the second man who isn’t coping well with the experience. All those secret glances between Chuck and Cawley, which are like little gems during the second viewing.
When Teddy is interviewing the staff, did you notice Chuck behind him smiling and nodding to an orderly, as if they know each other? I noticed that the first time and thought it strange. I looked back at it after my first viewing, the strangeness of it suddenly making sense.
How about that awkward moment when Teddy asks the female patient if Dr Sheehan had ever made a pass at her, not knowing that Dr Sheehan is sat right next to him. Something I didn’t really notice the first time round was this patent’s reaction when Teddy brings up the name of Andrew Laeddis.
There are so many wonderful moments to spot on the second viewing and many are discussed here.
The magic of the second viewing of Shutter Island is that it does feel like a different film. Rather than moving with Teddy, suffering from his delusions, questioning everything that he questions, you instead go through the film with Dr Cawley and Chuck. You see the story from their point of view, the landscape of mental health, their desperation to save Andrew, the work they have put into this roleplay.
The second viewing also gives you a chance to really appreciate what Teddy/Andrew went through. He’s the most violent patient on Shutter Island but he’s not a bad man.
Something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on throughout the second viewing was the use of fire and water. The use of water is quite obvious. Of course it makes Teddy ill at the beginning, he is surrounded by water and his children were drowned. But what about the fire? Fire features in Teddy’s delusions, Andrew Laeddis is a ‘fire bug’, Teddy repeatedly lights matches to speak to George in block C, he conjures up the second Rachel around a fire in the cave and then blows up Dr Cawley’s car as a distraction. I spent the second viewing trying to figure out the significance of the fire. It is the opposite of water, so perhaps it represents his sanity? But that doesn’t line up with the delusion of the second Rachel.
It has only occurred to me now, as I write it all down, that the fire is just as much a part of Teddy’s delusion as the water. His children drowned and his wife set fire to their apartment. Water and fire are both signs that Andrew failed his family and the ones he loved and so both haunt him.
The number of lobotomies carried out in America reached a scary high in the 1940s and into the 1950s, when this film was set, but thankfully began to decline in the mid-50s. The science behind Cawley and Sheehan’s theories would become realised in reality.
The last scene of Shutter Island is beautiful, subtle, poignant and desperately sad. Andrew would rather die (or become a ghost) as Teddy, the war hero and US marshal, than live as Andrew, the man who allowed his children to die and killed his wife. It confirms the intelligence of Andrew and the kindness and resignation in Dr Sheehan and Dr Cawley.