Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Shutter Island

Shutter Island comes as a mind numbing experience in the first viewing. It numbs you more, but with greater understanding, in the second. Directed by the legendary Martin Scorsese, it takes the viewers on a thrilling psychological roller coaster where suspense and drama loom large in its cinematic components. The film is based on Dennis Lehane’s 2003 book by the same name.

The music with which the film begins itself sets the tone of what’s to come. Ominous, dark and haunting. Three simple, yet shuddering beats. Shutter Island houses a mental institution where Edward “Teddy” Daniels (Leonardo Di Caprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are sent to investigate the disappearance of a patient Rachel Solando. The only way to reach the island is by taking a ferry.

The investigators take on their job with full flurry, inspecting the room from where Rachel disappeared, talking to the nurse, and the other patients. A small note that she left gives scope for a puzzle to be solved, until Teddy is told by Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley) that she is back and safe in her room. How strange. Why hadn’t they told him before? Kingsley delivers his actions flawlessly with forbidding charm.

Teddy (a very unlikely name in a such a forboding setting) has a past that haunts him and constantly disturbs his mental state. He starts getting headaches, tremors and hallucinations. He sees his dead wife in his dreams and gets nightmares of the war. Teddy doesn’t seem to have any idea of what he is getting into. There is a constant sense of an eerie mystery that engulfs the gothic setting. No one can escape the island. And Teddy is starting to feel like the victim.

The film is a mind game with intelligent character development. It introduces us to the characters at the beginning of the film, with the most normal format of a story. Each person’s role is defined systematically and their purpose on Shutter Island is laid out clearly. But with Teddy’s growing discomfort and isolation, we see a complex layering of plot advancement.

Teddy’s traumatic past feeds the undercurrent of the film, epitomizing the genre of film noir. It’s dark, it’s disturbing and it’s menacing. Kingsley exudes fear and intimidation. There is a sense of impending danger when he is around, a feeling of uneasiness. Teddy feels that the disappeared woman might be somewhere in a cave on the cliff. The terrain is tough and hazardous, with waves hitting on the rocks. How will they look for her? The challenging landscape with the mysterious occurrings lend to a fascinating watch.

The cinematography is stunning, with some astounding visuals. It’s not just a visual treat but a stimulation of the intellect as well. The questions that loom in our head are hard to fathom. I thought about how insanity is treated in our time and age. The references of how the patients are used for experiments cringed me. Are people really insane on their own terms? Isn’t every mental disturbance caused by an exterior source that may not necessarily be our fault? Are people forced into madness? Or more strongly, are we rendered insane by the world around us?

Continuing the thought about insanity, I am reminded of the film “ One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” where Jack Nicolson’s character is that of a rebel who wants to defy all power. He does not enter insane, but is made so by institutional propaganda. While Shutter Island may not as blatantly put across the power politics in the institution, Dr. John Cawley is not too far from Nurse Ratched’s unrelenting domination. The tyrant that she is, she defines the oppressive system under whose mercy are the patients. In Shutter Island, the rant by Dr. Rachel Solando, who Teddy finds in the cave is nothing but an enlightened talk about unimaginable brainwashing to create a world that in itself is delusional.

The connection between insanity and crime is brought out to educate us about how all our actions and resultant mental states are consequences of the life situations we need to deal with. Criminals are not born, but made. Made because of injustice. The patients at Shutter Island may be “dangerous” and most “violent” but in all their stories, we see how they only wanted justice. It’s a vicious cycle. The thin line that divides sanity and insanity almost doesn’t exist. Who defines sanity, if we all are criminals by propagating injustice? Does non-violence define stability of mind? These are the questions that Scorsese asks. It’s upto us to take away his suggestions. Or at least think about it.

Shutter Island is the work of a mastermind. It leaves you shaken and in wonderment at the end. Watch it for its compelling story, engaging plot, extraordinary visuals and ofcourse for Leonardo Di Caprio.


  1. great writing! i bet nobody could have described this film in words as u have! i saw this movie well before it was released in india...and yes its mindblowing.the end is so gripping, for a moment it totally confuses you then after a while it does sink in that death is better than to live in such madness (thts wht i thnk)

  2. @ AKM: Love your honesty. How simply you've described what many of us felt when we watched the film, especially the ending. The understanding that sinks in after the last scene is quite overwhelming. Like Leonardo says, "You know, this place makes me wonder; which would be worse - to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?"

  3. its a masterpiece..something we have come to expect from Scorcese over the years..DiCaprio did brilliantly..made it look so natural..Kingsley was his usual sharp and bang on...
    cinematography and the script...awesome!!
    3 things that made the difference -
    Lehane's writing
    Scorcese's vision
    DiCaprio's execution...fantastic!

  4. Thankyou Andre for your comment. Di Caprio and Kingsley gave soul to the film with their extraordinary performances. Out of the three things that you've listed, Scorsese's vision is what has made the film what it is. The Director's vision is what drives any film to its final destination.

  5. Shutter Island is definitely another masterpiece by the master craftsman Marty - rightfully referred to as America's greatest living director. I just love all his films - bold, versatile, unflinching, profound, intelligent and provocative.

    Lately I was on a Scorsese marathon, by trying to watch his lesser known classics like the King of Comedy, After Hours, Bringing Out the Dead and The Age of Innocence - each as enjoyable and unflinchingly great as his more popularly known works. A true genius indeed.

    Have you watched the film K-PAX? Similar premise and some brilliant acting from Kevin Spacey. It makes a good companion piece with Shutter Island.

  6. And Dennis Lehane is also one of my favorite modern fiction writers. I just love his dark, cathartic narrative style - his book is a like a long sad poem, in the same veins of Cormac McCarthy.

    Have you read any of Lehane's books? Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Coronado Stories are some from the top of my head. So Marty adapting Lehane was too powerful a combination for me to miss out!

  7. @ Nabil: Yes, I have read Mystic River. Dark, and hauntingly sad. Gave me unforgettable visuals, not to mention dialogues between the characters.

  8. This film and also the "inception" leads us to solutions on so-called "terrorists"! why they chose to die than live in injustice? Is it wrong for them to believe that they are right? As you put it right the justice vs injustice done for selfish motives is what the trouble we experience around us...