Reviews

Review: Shutter Island

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Discussing movies with surprise twists at the end always makes me a little angry, especially when the twist has been described as “nonsensical” or “sudden.” In some cases, it speaks to just how little film audiences actually pay attention to the films they watch. Other times, plot twists are so obvious that the praise they receive just makes me shake my head.

What’s truly disappointing, however, is that any film like this tends to be known and evaluated based solely on the twist. The Sixth Sense comes to mind — it has become less of a film and more of a contextless plot twist in the vacuum of film space.

I fear that Shutter Island met a somewhat similar fate. So, as a complete film, does Shutter Island succeed, or is it just an obvious plot twist surrounded by a weak movie?Â

Discussing movies with surprise twists at the end always makes me a little angry, especially when the twist has been described as "nonsensical" or "sudden." In some cases, it speaks to just how little film audiences actually pay attention to the films they watch. Other times, plot twists are so obvious that the praise they receive just makes me shake my head.

What's truly disappointing, however, is that any film like this tends to be known and evaluated based solely on the twist. The Sixth Sense comes to mind — it has become less of a film and more of a contextless plot twist in the vacuum of film space.

I fear that Shutter Island met a somewhat similar fate. So, as a complete film, does Shutter Island succeed, or is it just an obvious plot twist surrounded by a weak movie? {{page_break}}

Shutter Island occasionally feels like a psychological horror film, especially when it focuses on the prison environment in which most of the scenes take place. The viewer joins Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) on his way to a prison island where a dangerous female patient has disappeared. However, his real reason for visiting the island is to find the man who killed his wife. Before long, he begins to find clues suggesting that he has been brought to the island for an entirely different reason, and he begins to doubt the doctors, his partner, and even himself.

While it's not traditionally scary, Shutter Island is absolutely a film about both psychology and horror, focusing on how one can bring about the other and vice versa. While it does have a few frightening scenes, the implications of the themes explored, from lobotomy to mental degradation, are far more terrifying. If the viewer takes a moment to think about the real-world connections that the film makes, it's hard not to consider this a rather frightening film.

It's also an atmospheric film that takes a series of beautiful locales and employs them for its own sinister needs. The opening scene contains nothing if not ominous cues — its musical introduction, which sounds like a foghorn blowing over and over again, warns the viewer that Daniels has nothing to look forward to when he arrives at his destination. Even a stroll through thick woods becomes a torrent of danger and fear.

As for the story itself (and, yes, including its ending twist), there's a level of attention paid to executing the story that allows a somewhat complex plot to avoid becoming a complete mess. Essentially, the story uses the perceived insanity of the patients to explain a lot of the strange behavior that would otherwise not make sense in light of the ending twist. For the most part, this technique succeeds. The actions of every character aren't always watertight, but none of them interferes with the overall understanding of the story.

I still remember a time when I believed DiCaprio would never amount to more than his role in Titantic — that is, nothing. However, the character depicted by DiCaprio is rich and believable. Part of this is due to how he is written; Teddy Daniels's life has sucked quite a bit, but never does he seem whiny or pathetic. It's hard for an audience to avoid an emotional connection to him, which strengthens the film's conclusion.

The story definitely isn't perfect, and some plot elements and characters don't necessarily add anything vital to the story that hasn't already been achieved. It's a long movie, and some of these sequences can make the film feel longer. However, when taken on the level of a continuous experience, it's hard to find major fault in any particular scene as they never stall in their progress toward the film's eventual goal.

I love psychological films, and Shutter Island is a fantastic entry in this genre. While it is indeed reliant upon a twist, the twist is more successful than the average "everything you believe is wrong" device. If you're a viewer that needs to rewatch any film with a twist to write each one of the plot holes in your little diary, you may rob yourself of the film's best qualities. As an exploration of psychology, mental degradation, and the horrors of real life, it is wholly worthwhile. 

Overall Score: 8.15 – Great. (Movies that score between 8.00 and 8.50 are great representations of their genre that everyone should see in theaters on opening night.)

Shutter Island explores psychology in a rewarding and terrifying manner, taking cues from horror movies to create an ominous atmosphere. However, the film's true success is its ability to make the horrors of mental degradation all too real, and it's a great film because of it.

Xander Markham: 8.90 – Spectacular. Martin Scorsese's command of the visual language of cinema is unparalleled among any filmmaker working today and possibly one of the greatest in the medium's history. Without resorting to cheap tricks or scares, his camera makes the environs of Shutter Island into the essence of nightmares, where the only thing worse than what may be lingering in the dark is discovering the dreadful revelations still waiting to be found in the light. It is a film packed with misdirection and untruths, as told by the most deranged of unreliable narrators, that distorts itself even further with every subsequent viewing. Although the final twist in the tale is a neat one, Scorsese's ultimate Grand Guignol flourish is not on his protagonist, but the audience. For a story that deals with the human dependence on fantasy to rationalise the real, and subsequently questions how much we can trust our perceptions of reality anyway, who better as lab-rats than a group of people in a darkened room, trying to make sense of contradictory information fed to them by a series of moving images? The clue's in the title, folks. Shutter Island is not just a film only Scorsese could make, but a story only a man who speaks cinema so intimately could tell. 

Siobhan Watters: 8.50 – Spectacular. My first viewing of Shutter Island surprised and instilled in me even more respect for Martin Scorsese, maybe the best director alive, if not the hardest working. Shutter Island marks only the second time Scorsese has ventured into thriller territory (first: Cape Fear), and the first time Marty really tries to f**k with us; the results are equally clever and entertaining. Shutter Island stands out for it’s artful and moody atmosphere, the product of a hurricane that batters the senses of two detectives who come to the titular island institution to investigate the disappearance of a murderess; having no previous knowledge of this plot point, I found myself disconcerted by the noise and violence of the storm, which was likely the intended effect. I enjoyed the film in its entirety, and was moved by the trauma Leonardo DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels experiences from his past, both in war, and matrimony. One cannot review Shutter Island without acknowledging the similarities between this and DiCaprio’s other 2010 performance in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Similar to watching Viggo Mortenson in back to back Cronenbergs, the thrilling, twisty concepts of Scorsese’s and Nolan’s films and the near-identical pasts of DiCaprio’s characters force the two movies together in our minds, even if the directors each ultimately have something different to say about reality. Shutter Island is not hurt at all by this comparison, in fact it features the stronger performance from DiCaprio. I recommend watching this film twice, as I had to do; it will be a completely different movie the second time around.